Student Events with Sensitive or Difficult Subject Matters
It is vital to the mission of a university that students engage both in and out of the classroom with topics that can be sensitive, challenging, or emotional. Events related to war, trauma, sexual assault, self-harm, and other forms of violence can be powerful experiences for students to plan and attend, and can contribute in important ways to campus climate and student wellness. Thinking about how to frame your event in advance and connecting to relevant resources during the planning process can help ensure that your event is successful in meeting its goals and supportive of the community. This is a short guide to help student groups plan and implement events on topics that might be especially emotional for participants or audience members.
Framing the Event
What are your goals for the event?
Consider formulating some goals in writing for this event, even if you only share them with members of your group or planning committee. Start by completing these statements:
- “By putting on this event, we hope to accomplish”
- “We hope that participants’ experience of our event is”
- “The reason we are having this event is”
- “The reason we are formatting the event in the way that it is currently conceptualized is…”
- “One concern we have as we plan this event is…”
If your event will include graphic descriptions, depictions, or discussions of war, identity-based violence/hate crimes, abuse, sexual violence, or self-harm, you may want to consider using a content warning. A content warning is a way of giving people more information about the content of an event so that they can decide for themselves whether or not this is the type of event they want to attend, as well as to prepare them, if they do attend, for content that could be triggering for those who have suffered trauma. Note: not all those who have suffered trauma will automatically be triggered by discussions of trauma or violence, but for those who are, a content warning can empower them to take care of themselves as they feel is appropriate.
A trigger is something that causes an intense physical or emotional response that a person cannot easily manage or control. Sometimes this involves flashbacks to traumatic events or memories that can move someone to self-harm. Triggers themselves can be unpredictable. Sometimes explicit conversation about a violent topic can be triggering; but something seemingly benign like a song, a smell, or an object can also be triggering.
Because of this, content warnings can be useful, but are not guaranteed to prevent triggers. If you plan to include a content warning, consider including it on advertisements, social media, and tickets that people will see before the event. For a content warning to be useful and not simply pro forma, you want to give participants/audience members ample time to decide whether or not an event like this is one that they want to attend. Once a person is at your event, they may find it more difficult to excuse themselves or leave the venue if they are surprised to find that an event deals with violent or triggering topics.
An event that is very clearly marked as a frank discussion of self-harm, for example, is different from a theatrical production that ends in a graphic scene of self-harm. The content of the former, if properly advertised, will not likely catch someone off guard. The content of the latter may come as a complete surprise to a participant or audience member, thus triggering an emotional, anxious, or physical response. Content warnings for both types of events could be appropriate, but they serve different functions.
If you include a content warning on a program or at the beginning of the event, do so with enough time for participants to leave without feeling singled out or put on the spot. Consider announcing a content warning 5 minutes before the start of the event, while people are still being seated and then again before the event begins. If your event is made up of multiple presentations, performances, or components, it is generally okay to give a blanket content warning instead of repeated content warnings throughout, unless the event welcomes new participants/audience members throughout (as in the case of a conference, for example).
At the Event
Impact of messaging and logistics
Being sad, upset, or emotional is not itself an emergency and these feelings do not necessarily mean that someone has been triggered. Implying that people should not or will not able to cope with the content of your event might send the wrong message. Depending on the event and the audience, a combination of content warnings, sharing available resources on campus, and providing an opportunity to debrief or process difficult material can be ample structural support for students at a challenging or emotional event. Don’t put people on the spot at an event or ask them to share personal experiences in ways that are compulsory.
Do I need support staff there? If so who?
If you think you may need a counselor or other support staff at your event, here are a few things to consider:
Tufts University has a counselor-on-call and a chaplain-on-call at all times and that person can be reached through TUPD at 617-627-3030. Including this information on a program could be a good resource for students at an especially emotional event, should they need to talk with someone immediately. If you decide to ask staff members to attend your event as support resources, have a conversation with them about your goals for their participation and be open to their questions, concerns, and suggestions related to their presence at the event. There is a difference between confidential resources and non-confidential resources on campus. The three resources on campus with the ability to hold conversations with legally-based confidentiality are the Health Service, the Counseling and Mental Health Service, and the University Chaplaincy. The Sexual Misconduct Resource Specialist and the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Specialist also have policy-based confidentiality. The Office of Equal Opportunity and the Tufts University Police Department are resources for reporting incidents. Other deans and faculty are also available as resources but are mandated to report conversations related to sexual misconduct. If you invite staff members to your event and point them out as resources, it is important to note who is a confidential resource and who is not. Telling students that a non-confidential staff member is present should the student be distressed and want to talk with someone could put all parties in a difficult situation in relation to sexual misconduct and other reporting obligations. Thoughtfully and intentionally point out support staff and give clear explanations for why that staff is present and how they can be utilized. Inviting staff to your event (University Chaplaincy; Counseling and Mental Health Service; Group of 6; Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education; Student Life; other advisors), can help to build relationships between students and staff on campus. Give staff ample warning in anticipation of an event so that they can determine whether or not they can attend. If they cannot attend, do not take it personally or assume that this means they don’t support your event–it may be because of scheduling, staff availability, professional requirements, or professional discretion about whether their presence would be the best way to access the resources they can offer.
After the Event
Opportunities to discuss or debrief events with difficult topics or themes can be helpful. Consider having members of your group stay after an event or reconvene in a different space in case anyone wants to talk or wants to be pointed toward resources; but know your own limits and abilities. Students are not professional counselors and should not counsel someone through an emergency. Invite participants/audience members to process their thoughts and feelings about an event with trusted friends and mentors after the event. Consider providing helpful discussion questions in your program or on social media.
It may be helpful to include a list of resources (on a program or on social media) for students who want to discuss the content of the event or the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that the event may have brought up for the student. Some resources include:
- Confidential: Tufts University Chaplaincy; Counseling and Mental Health Service; Health Service; Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education
- Non-Confidential: Group of Six staff; Dean of Students Office staff; Office of Equal Opportunity; Tufts University Police Department
Impact beyond event
Consider what impact your event might have on campus climate. Perhaps your event has drawn attention to an important topic that hasn’t been discussed much on campus. What follow-up events or resources would be useful to students? Consider using your website or social media to connect people to trusted off-campus or on-campus resources or further opportunities to learn about or discuss the content of your event. Are there opportunities to connect with faculty, offices, or other student groups who are knowledgeable about this topic? If an exchange between students or participants at your event concerns you (perhaps someone indicates that they are in danger of harming themselves), and you feel an immediate response may be necessary, you can contact TUPD at 617-627-3030. They can respond appropriately, including accessing the CMHS On-Call Counselor or other resources, as needed. If an exchange between students or participants at your event concerns you, but does not feel like an emergency, consider reaching out to the Office of Campus Life or the Dean of Students Office.