How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
For the better half of my undergraduate years, nearly everyone seemed to have something to say about “safe spaces.” Mentioning the term had the potential to elicit heated reactions from students, politicians, academics, and anyone else remotely interested in the topic.
Headlines about safe spaces and their relevance to free speech on college campuses flooded the editorial sections of news outlets. This occurred, in part, as a result of widely publicized incidents regarding safe spaces at universities across the country.
In the fall of 2015, a series of student protests over racial tension erupted at the University of Missouri over safe spaces and their impact on freedom of the press. Weeks later, a controversy at Yale over offensive Halloween costumes escalated into a fight over safe spaces and students’ rights to freedom of expression.
In 2016, the dean of University of Chicago wrote a letter to the incoming class of 2020 stating that the university didn’t condone trigger warnings or intellectual safe spaces.
Some critics suggest that safe spaces are a direct threat to free speech, foster groupthink, and limit the flow of ideas. Others accuse college students of being coddled “snowflakes” who seek protection from ideas that make them uncomfortable.
What unites most anti-safe space stances is that they focus almost exclusively on safe spaces in the context of college campuses and free speech. Because of this, it’s easy to forget that the term “safe space” is actually quite broad and encompasses a variety of different meanings.
What is a safe space? On college campuses, a “safe space” is usually one of two things. Classrooms can be designated as academic safe spaces, meaning that students are encouraged to take risks and engage in intellectual discussions about topics that may feel uncomfortable. In this type of safe space, free speech is the goal.
The term “safe space” is also used to describe groups on college campuses that seek to provide respect and emotional security, often for individuals from historically marginalized groups.
A “safe space” doesn’t have to be a physical location. It can be something as simple as a group of people who hold similar values and commit to consistently provide each other with a supportive, respectful environment.
The purpose of safe spaces
It’s well-known that a little anxiety can boost our performance, but chronic anxiety can take a toll on our emotional and psychological health.
Feeling like you need to have your guard up at all times can be exhausting and emotionally taxing.
“Anxiety pushes the nervous system into overdrive which can tax bodily systems leading to physical discomfort like a tight chest, racing heart, and churning stomach,” says Dr. Juli Fraga, PsyD.
“Because anxiety causes fear to arise, it can lead to avoidance behaviors, such as avoiding one’s fears and isolating from others,” she adds.
Safe spaces can provide a break from judgment, unsolicited opinions, and having to explain yourself. It also allows people to feel supported and respected. This is especially important for minorities, members of the LGBTQIA community, and other marginalized groups.
That said, critics often redefine the concept of a safe space as something that’s a direct attack on free speech and only relevant to minority groups on college campuses.
Perpetuating this narrow definition makes it difficult for the general population to understand the value of a safe space and why they can benefit all people.
Using this constricted safe space definition also limits the scope of productive discussions we can have regarding the topic. For one, it prevents us from examining how they relate to mental health — an issue that’s just as relevant, and arguably more urgent, than free speech.
Why these spaces are beneficial for mental health
Despite my background as a journalism student, racial minority, and native of the ultra-liberal Bay Area, I still had difficulty understanding the value of safe spaces until after college.
I was never anti-safe space, but during my time at Northwestern I never identified as someone who needed a safe space. I was also wary of engaging in discussions about a topic that could ignite polarizing debates.
In hindsight, however, I’ve always had a safe space in one form or another even before I started college.
Since middle school, that place was the yoga studio in my hometown. Practicing yoga and the studio itself was so much more than downward dogs and handstands. I learned yoga, but more importantly, I learned how to navigate discomfort, learn from failure, and approach new experiences with confidence.
I spent hundreds of hours practicing in the same room, with the same faces, in the same mat space. I loved that I could go to the studio and leave the stress and drama of being a high schooler at the door.
For an insecure teenager, having a judgment-free space where I was surrounded by mature, supportive peers was invaluable.
Even though the studio fits the definition nearly perfectly, I had never thought of the studio as a “safe space” until recently.
Redefining the studio has helped me see how focusing solely on safe spaces as a barrier to free speech is unproductive because it limits people’s willingness to engage with the topic as a whole — namely, how it relates to mental health.
Safe spaces in a mental health crisis
In some ways, the call for safe spaces is an attempt to help people navigate the growing mental health crisis present on so many college campuses in the United States.
As a student at Northwestern, I saw first-hand that mental health is a rampant issue on our campus. Nearly every quarter since my sophomore year, at least one student at Northwestern has died.
Not all of the losses were suicides, but many of them were. Next to “The Rock,” a boulder on campus that students traditionally paint to advertise events or express opinions, there’s now a tree painted with the names of students who have passed away.
The increase in school shootings and threats has also had an impact on campus. In 2018, our campus went on lockdown after reports of an active shooter. It ended up being a hoax, but many of us spent hours huddled in dorms and classrooms sending messages to our families.
Suicides, traumatic incidents, whatever the circumstances — these events leave a lasting impact on students and the wider community. But many of us have become desensitized. This is our new normal.
“Trauma strips away the sense of safety in communities, and when peers or fellow students die by suicide, communities and loved ones may feel guilty, angry, and confused,” Fraga explains. “Those struggling with depression may be particularly impacted.”
For many of us, our “normal” also means coping with mental illness. I’ve watched peers struggle with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorders. Most of us know someone who has been raped, sexually assaulted, or abused.
All of us — even those of us who come from privileged backgrounds — arrive at college carrying trauma or some form of emotional baggage.
We’re thrust into a new environment that can often become an academic pressure cooker and we have to figure out how to take care of ourselves without the support of our family or community at home.
Safe spaces are a mental health tool
So when students ask for a safe space, we’re not trying to limit the flow of ideas on campus or to disengage from the community. Impeding free speech and censoring opinions that may not align with our own isn’t the objective.
Instead, we’re seeking a tool to help us take care of our mental health so we can continue actively engaging in our classes, extracurriculars, and other areas of our lives.
Safe spaces don’t coddle us or blind us from the realities of our world. They offer us a brief opportunity to be vulnerable and let down our guard without fear of judgment or harm.
They allow us to build resilience so that when we’re outside of these spaces we can engage maturely with our peers and be the strongest, most authentic versions of ourselves.
Most importantly, safe spaces allow us to practice self-care so we can continue making thoughtful, productive contributions to difficult discussions, inside and outside the classroom.
When we think about safe spaces in the context of mental health, it’s obvious how they can be a beneficial — and perhaps an essential — part of everyone’s life.
After all, learning to prioritize and take care of our mental health doesn’t begin or end in college. It’s a lifelong endeavor.
Megan Yee is a recent graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a former editorial intern with Healthline.