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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Emotional Intelligence: Why discuss sensitive topics in an academic setting?

University Health Services

“All
learning has an emotional base.” – Plato

As
our campus community comes together to read Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for
the Time Being
, readers may be taken aback by the themes of suicide,
trauma, and mental illness. Sensitive topics, such as suicide, can evoke a wide
range of emotions. These themes also bring up the questions, “What is the value
of discussing such sensitive topics in an academic setting?” and “How can they
happen in emotionally safe and meaningful ways?”

Emotional
intelligence refers to one’s ability to perceive, control, and evaluate
emotions. Building this intelligence is a crucial step in individual development.
Our feelings and emotions ultimately guide our thinking and actions, whether we
are aware of it or not. And, to get back to the question at hand, a key step in
developing emotional intelligence involves using emotions to promote thinking
and cognitive activity.

At
UW-Madison, we pride ourselves on providing a liberal arts education to our
students. The Wisconsin Idea promotes educational experiences both in and out
of the classroom. We hope that students leave our university with an
understanding of how their coursework is relevant to their lives and
communities. Emotional intelligence is an often undervalued aspect of a college
education that prepares people to navigate relationships and contribute to the
world around them.

Having
an open dialogue in an academic setting communicates to students that these
issues are important to both emotional and intellectual development. Talking
about mental illness helps reduce stigma and makes it clear that UW-Madison
respects the very real and diverse experiences students bring to the classroom.

If
conversations about trauma or suicide are happening in academic settings,
students need to know that instructors value their feelings and wellbeing. Instructors
can do this by providing a trigger warning before reading sensitive material.
Without a warning, students may feel bombarded with difficult memories or
emotions, especially if they have personally had traumatic experiences. Their
sole focus will be dealing with their own reaction to the material, which may
interfere with their ability to engage academically. Instructors can also help
create a safe space in the classroom by establishing
ground rules for discussion and stressing the importance of using respectful language
and listening practices.
Finally,
when discussing sensitive topics, instructors should know what resources exist
for any student who might feel triggered by the material. University Health
Services is available 24-hours a day if students need support processing their
emotions or have other mental health concerns. University faculty and staff can
also contact UHS at (608)265-5600, option 9 for after-hours mental health
crisis services.

For
a full list of mental health and suicide prevention resources, visit http://www.gobigread.wisc.edu/resources/HealthResources2013.pdf.

Valerie
Kowis
Suicide
Prevention Coordinator
University
Health Services