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College isn't supposed to be the place young people hide from scary ideas. Safe zones to make sure no one has hurt feelings dampen academic discourse very likely do more harm than good, by shielding anxious people from opportunities for emotional growth.

On many college campuses, a new way of describing social interactions previously considered innocuous has arisen.

Microaggressions describe tiny social cues that seem harmless but mask sinister attitudes. For example, it used to be a point of national pride to say, "America is a melting pot," America welcomes and assimilates many different cultures. Now the message is construed as "You must submerge your ethnic identity to submit to the dominant culture." Or consider a seemingly well-intentioned statement like, "We choose job candidates on the basis of their qualifications." Well, that can only mean that they believe minority group members are less qualified so they choose candidates who look like them.

Trigger warnings are alerts that lecturers are expected to issue if something in a discussion might cause a strong emotional response. For instance, legendary American poet Maya Angelou spent part of her early life working as a prostitute (which is nearly always described with the euphemism "sex worker"). The professor would be considered obligated to allow students who would be unduly upset by such revelations, who might find the discussion a "trigger" to remembering unpleasant feelings, to leave the lecture hall and avoid discussion of how Maya Angelou's life informed her work.

In 2013, the US Departments of Education and Justice broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include "unwelcome" speech. To avoid federal investigations, universities now define unwelcome speech as including revelations of race (you're not supposed to notice), religion, and veteran status. Everyone is supposed to rely on his or her own self-made definition of what's welcome and unwelcome, but to avoid any utterance that might be unwelcome by another hearer.

Emotions now take the place of evidence. Students are encouraged to catastrophize. They are encouraged to have zero tolerance of unwelcome new ideas. They are also free to reject the new ideas for which they enrolled in higher education in the first place.

Why are we even having a discussion of microaggressions and trigger warnings and unwelcome speech? The simple fact is, American college students are an anxiety-ridden bunch. In 2014, a survey by the American College Health Association found that 54 percent of American students reported "overwhelming anxiety" at some point in the last twelve months. Students are reporting more emotional crises. They are increasingly fragile. This changes the way professors and administrators interact with them.

One factor that has contributed to the rising rates of anxiety on American college campuses is social media. Nearly all American college students have been involved with social media since early adolescence. On sites like Facebook, likes and dislikes create divisions between "us" and "them." This gives teens and young adults many opportunities to approach their views of the world with confirmation bias. This logical error is ignoring evidence that contradicts the conclusion with which you are most comfortable. Social media becomes an echo chamber that reinforces self-importance without giving young people the rough and tumble opportunities to develop self-confidence and self-esteem. Every misdemeanor becomes a hate crime. Every fact becomes a hate definition. Students can't tell the difference between a discussion about hate speech and hate speech. They can't tell the difference between a discussion of racism and racism itself.

What's the way to help college students regain their mental health?

Back when colleges still required courses in things like philosophy, students might have been exposed to the ancient Roman thinker (and emperor) Marcus Aurelius. He said, "Life itself is but what you deem it." The Buddha taught, "Our lives are the creations of our minds." 

The modern expression of this ancient philosophy is cognitive behavior therapy. In cognitive behavior therapy, people learn to master their own patterns of thought. Colleges shouldn't try to protect students from inevitable upsets. They should challenge students with more ideas than they can handle, so they have to learn the skills of prioritization, negotiation, and cooperation. It's fine to teach students to avoid giving unintentional offense, but it's necessary to allow students to pursue their truths wherever they lead.

And how, specifically, can college students climb out of their protected emotional cradles? Here's a short list of suggestions:

  1. Avoid mind reading. You don't automatically know what someone else thinks about you or anything else.
  2. Avoid global evaluations, either positive or negative. Even people who have known each other for years can still discover facts about each other.
  3. Avoid catastrophizing, a "wouldn't it be terrible if" attitude. Just do.
  4. Avoid dichotomizing, thinking of people in all or nothing terms.
  5. Avoid fortunetelling. It's the only way you can push your limits.
  6. Avoid the inability to disconfirm. You can't be sure something is if you can't also be sure it isn't.
  7. Avoid negative filtering, looking at only the downside.
  8. Avoid positive filtering. Don't give people or ideas undue credit.
  9. Avoid emotional thinking. Your emotions can inform but should not limit your thinking.
  10. And avoid blaming others. Take responsibility for your own outcomes.