When I was 19 my father died. A few years later, when I was at medical school, I attended a lecture on bereavement.
Amazingly the lecturer ran through a series of slides which I recognised. I had been through exactly the same emotional roller-coaster which I believed was personal. Suddenly, on the screen, were the emotions I had experienced. I was not unique. This was normal.
I found it helped both at the time and in my later career. Saying 'I know how you’re feeling' to someone who had lost someone was not just a cliché. I did know how they were feeling.
As the lecture opened some personal wounds should there have been a 'trigger' warning? Perhaps I should have been excused the lecture in case it was too painful.
I am always cautious when I read about universities giving trigger warnings or banning books in case they upset the 'snowflake' generation.
These media stories make good copy but I am not sure whether they tell the whole story. But I was surprised to read that the Royal Holloway, University of London issue literature students warnings about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
This story of crime, poverty and murder can cause anxiety but will reading about child abuse, domestic violence or racial prejudice open up old wounds? Did they think that Oliver Twist was just happy children dancing and singing “Consider yourself?”
Royal Holloway is not alone. Apparently, the University of Salford issue trigger warnings for Great Expectations and Jane Eyre while the University of Northampton warn about George Orwell’s 1984.
I would not pretend to compare my bereavement with the experience of students who have suffered abuse or domestic violence. Reading can open up old wounds.
What makes some literature great is how it does reflect real life. Dickens worked as a journalist and had seen these problems at first hand. Luckily there were no workhouses in Torbay when I was working but there was poverty and crime. There was also domestic violence.
I did not have to deal with a mad woman in the attic as Jane Eyre did, but I did come across serious mental health problems which were metaphorically put in the attic. And some of the patient’s stories in real life would have been too far fetched to put in a novel.
I saw how physical, emotional or sexual abuse led to life-long problems; bones heal but minds do not.
Somerset Maugham, who was a doctor, said that medicine was a good training for writing because a doctor sees 'life laid bare' I apologise for giving a quote as he also said: "The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit."
We also see warnings before many television programmes. “There are some scenes which viewers may find disturbing.” Anyone who chooses to watch a crime drama about murder and serial killers must realise that it will not be Peppa Pig or In the night garden with Igglepiggle.
If someone has suppressed their emotions to cope with terrible events in their lives they will find it difficult to face their demons. But, rather than simply giving warnings, these survivors need help.
Giving a warning and not carrying it any further leaves the survivors with their demons which will rear their heads again throughout life.
When these students leave University, they will have to face the real world. If the stories of student warnings are accurate and anyone finds Oliver Twist so difficult that they cannot cope, how will they deal with stories of racial prejudice, domestic violence or child abuse in the real world?
Either these students should be encouraged to face their demons now with professional help or real life should have a trigger warning.
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