Monday, September 9, 2013

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

Valerie Kowis
Suicide Prevention Coordinator
University Health Services

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