That safe-space room was actually well-done, please stop mocking it now

I’m not going to go deeply into the now-famous Shulevitz op-ed in the New York Times about how students are “hiding from scary ideas” and trying to “self-infantilize,” though I have many thoughts on it. I want to pull out a small bit of it and explain why the mockery of what’s described in that bit is off-base.

In her opening story, Shulevitz describes student activists at Brown having set up a “safe space” room where students could go if triggered or distressed during a scheduled debate about campus sexual violence. This room “was equipped with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies, as well as students and staff members trained to deal with trauma.” Shulevitz doesn’t come out and explicitly mock this as childish, but she used it to open an op-ed about students infantilizing themselves – providing all the fuzzy details – and an awful lot of the people I’ve seen commenting on the piece have been mocking the hell out of this room and how childish it is.

Here’s the thing. I’ve volunteered as a rape crisis counselor for more than two years. Been trained in two different states for two different programs, and between them, interacted with a lot of people with trauma-related mental health issues. I also trained last fall as a domestic violence advocate and have been volunteering on a hotline for that for a few months (I’m actually on a shift, phone sitting next to me to be picked up when calls come in, as I write these words). And in street medic work I interact with people who have experienced some kind of trauma pretty often. I took a Psychological First Aid course, which is about supporting people who have been recently traumatized by natural disasters, early in my street medic career, before I’d had any rape crisis training, so that I could better support people as a street medic. I’ve used these skills to provide crisis support at community events from time to time too, like one of the first vigils after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

The setup of this safe space room doesn’t sound childish to me at all. It sounds pretty intelligent and well-informed.

Some of the more common symptoms of trauma-related mental health issues, especially PTSD, are dissociation (e.g. flashbacks, feeling like you’re out of your body or cut off from your senses or emotions, memory loss) and “reliving” experiences that are mostly prompted by something reminding you of the trauma (e.g. flashbacks, nightmares, mental floods of traumatic memories, loss of emotional stability, having physical reactions like trouble breathing or a pounding heart). For both of these, the first-aid-y equivalent is what’s called grounding – connecting the person (or, the person connecting themselves, if they know how) back to the present, not-in-danger, reality, through the engagement of their senses.

I’ve prepared grounding kits, handed out grounding objects, and been in rooms where because of the nature of what we were talking about there was a pile of grounding material in the room for use if necessary. What does one typically use for grounding? Colors, definitely colors. Textures, especially textures with a positive mental association. Objects that catch the light, that reflect or refract it. Tastes and smells with positive mental associations. Shiny objects. Soft and fuzzy objects. Things you can squeeze, hug, fiddle with, turn over in your hands, peer at. Emotionally neutral or positive sounds. Sensations like cold, as long as it’s consensually administered and won’t do actual physical harm (perhaps because of my medic background, I’m a huge fan of instant cold packs for grounding, and almost flipped out in excitement at the realism when I saw Iron Man 3 and Tony Stark threw snow in his own face to bring himself out of panic attacks and flashbacks). Basically, lots of neutral and positive sensory input. Anything involving simple repetitive tasks (or simple repetitive exercise, like running) may also be useful for dealing with other aspects of what’s happening with the person, because another set of PTSD symptoms is what’s called hyperarousal – overactive startle reflex, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, excessive alertness, angry outbursts – and repetitive tasks that don’t require any brainpower can help with this.

If you’re paying attention to what I’m saying here, you’re probably getting my point, but just to be clear: What would I put in a room meant for people who’d been triggered, if I had the resources to stock such a room? Well, something like an elliptical machine would be nice, but probably not feasible. Staff who knew something about trauma would be nice too, and a space within the space to talk to them out of the hearing of others. I’d put in soft beanbag chairs (fuzzy texture, usually bright colors, a place to sit) as well as some other chairs, and some pillows (soft and squeezable). I’d put in some comfort-food-type snacks (taste and smell can be great for grounding). I’d put in a lot of colorful objects, maybe even a bookcase or something so that people could look at the colors on the book covers. I’d put in bead strings, pipe cleaners, craft-store-type feathers, shiny rocks, glass prisms. I’d put in squeezable foam balls. I’d definitely put in Play-Doh, Play-Doh is great for this, the only problem is that it dries out so quickly. I’d put in a pile of instant cold packs. I might put in soft music or other soft sound effects. Perhaps paper and pencils/markers/crayons as well – I hadn’t previously thought of coloring books but that’s actually pretty smart. Bubbles are nice too, they have the whole refraction-of-light thing down. I’ve traditionally carried a small (like, zip-loc-bag-sized) grounding kit within my street medic kit, and it has some of this stuff, mostly colorful beads, scents, and small squishy or soft objects, plus I have cold packs and snacks in the rest of the kit. If you talked to other people who have done grounding stuff, you’d probably get some different ideas (but overlapping, because most of my own ideas, I got from other people, mostly when I was being trained or in continuing ed).

The safe space room at Brown didn’t have cold packs – might I suggest those for next time? – but based on Shulevitz’s description, they put together a pretty solid room, one that even went with all the senses just in case using a particular one for grounding doesn’t work well for someone. Good job, student activists! Guess you got good training somewhere. Your competent work probably enabled some students to go listen to the ideas exchanged in the debate, secure in the knowledge that if they had a panic attack they could duck out to a well-stocked room for a while! And you got coverage in the New York Times too! Except wait, in the New York Times you were portrayed as childish and now a bunch of people on the Internet are making fun of you because of that op-ed. I think Shulevitz was pretty irresponsible, honestly, to not contextualize that room at all for readers who have no reason to know anything about grounding techniques. If she didn’t know, she should have asked, instead of apparently assuming that the students see themselves as small children and set the room up to reflect that.

Look people, we can argue about the nature and effects of the current wave of student activism on campus, including what, if anything, the Shulevitz piece says about them. But seriously, please stop mocking the content of that room. The fact that it had Play-Doh in it is just good practice, not actually relevant to any substantial point you were trying to make. And you’re shitting on students for doing something well.

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