A few weeks ago, we wrote about the nature of triggers. Basically, we mentioned that triggers are hard to predict and cannot always be detected. But, it is important to understand that there are triggers for many people that are harmful and we have to create places where those triggers are mitigated as much as possible. Such places are called “safe spaces.”

Now, the notion of safe spaces has come under fire in recent years. There’s a debate. I get that. What you are about to read is my, Nate Crawford’s, opinion on safe spaces.

Now, one caveat. No space is completely safe. The nature of sharing spaces with other people and inhabiting the same space is that you are always at risk to have a trigger encounter. And, actually, anywhere that someone engages any of their five senses, there is risk for a trigger. So, the goal is not to create a completely safe space as much as a place where triggers can be discussed, dealt with, and the like.

Let me give an example.

I used to teach philosophy and religion to college students. The nature of these subjects is that they challenge people to think and confront ideologies that they may not have considered. I taught in a predominately white school with little to no people of color. So, in my teaching, I exposed them to people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Caesar Chavez, Paulo Freire, Simone De Beauvoir, and other challenging thinkers. Now, these people all challenged the predominant worldview of the students in my classes. Most of my students had never read or been exposed to the ideas that these thinkers were bringing to the table. And it was uncomfortable for my students: they did not like being critiqued. But the classroom was still a safe space. It was uncomfortable and difficult for my students, but it was still a space where we could explore and dialogue in a way that was not destructive, but open to exploring all ideas available to us.

My classroom was also a safe space because we did not accept views that dehumanized other people. At the front of the class, I talked at length about the fact that the classroom was a place where all people were to be respected, but that we were not going to entertain or deal with people and worldviews that wanted to destroy the humanity of other people. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and the like were not to be tolerated. This is not to say that we could not disagree, but that we were not going to dehumanize other people by using slurs or saying anything that takes away from their fundamental humanity. And my classes went well.

However, there was nothing that I could have done to make my room, my class, trigger free. What I did do, though, is create an environment where a person could talk about certain things as psychological triggers and we could discuss this as a class. Or, if it was more serious, I could pull the students aside and we could talk about what was triggering and make a plan to deal with it in our classroom.

Another important aspect of creating a safe space in my classroom was making sure that for things that were more likely to be triggering, I gave a warning and allowed students to be excused. For example, I used a movie in my classroom about the way the news colors how we view events. The movie used a lot of war imagery. I told students up front that there were going to be images of war and if anyone had a problem or think that this might bother them, they were free to leave the class. I did not want to create an environment where a student who had been in war and had PTSD or a student who lost her father in the war was subjected to something very painful. Instead, I wanted to create a space that was safe and where people could disengage when needed.

Creating such a safe space is also imperative for me when I talk to people about mental illness. I usually start up front that we are going to be talking about mental illness and, in most cases, suicide. I give the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). I also give out the number to the Crisis Text Line (text START to 741741). But, I make sure that people know that if the content gets too heavy or personal or starts to make someone feel more than upset, they are free to grab someone else and leave. When I talk to students at school, I make sure that students know they can grab a teacher and get help or go talk. This is important because, while I want to give students the facts and understand, I also do not want to do anything that may put ideas in a student’s head or that may push a student over the edge.

And, last, I want to just say a little something about creating a safe space for talking about suicide. This is difficult because talking about suicide is always tough and brings up emotions that we may not know that we had. This is especially true when I talk to students. So, when we talk suicide, in order to create a safe space, we never talk about methods or thoughts. I never detail how I have self-harmed or describe in detail what my suicidal thoughts are. Instead, I stay specifically vague, showing students that I have had suicidal thoughts and that they have effected my life but never tell them what those thoughts are, what my suicidal ideation brings out, or anything like that. The goal is not to put any ideas in someone’s head. The goal is to create a safe space where we can talk about mental illness and suicide without giving people the means to act. And it’s a delicate balance.

So, those are my initial thoughts on safe spaces. I’d love to hear, read, see, what you think.