Safe Spaces and Mental Health

Dear Victoria Atkins MP, Rt Hon Theresa May MP,

In your exchange during Prime Minister’s Questions of September 14th 2016, you set out a clear message about safe spaces in universities in the UK. First, you characterised them as an environment where speech is limited because of a wish not to be offended. You then said that this is a clear opponent to free speech. I agree with you: any provision of such an environment is completely against our joint support of free speech. However, there is an aspect of safe spaces which I fear has been overlooked.

Mental health is the one evil which all political parties universally agree we must tackle. As Theresa May said before stepping into Number 10 for the first time as Prime Minister: “If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand”.

A huge part of many mental illnesses is the loss of control of your thought process, meaning specific things can trigger a state of anxiety, depression or distress. Discussions of severe trauma, such as rape and depression, especially can trigger these.

As I understand it, part of the “safe space” concept is that the space should be safe for people who suffer from mental health conditions, such that it does not trigger any reasonable state of mental distress due to a mental health condition. If safe spaces are to be removed from universities, given that there is so much will for action of mental health, I think the impact of this on those suffering from mental illnesses should be considered. An alternative protection may be needed.

As much as it is easy to ignore this issue and treat it as simply people’s “wish not to be offended shutting down debate”, I think the right thing to do is to take time to understand the implications on people suffering from mental health conditions. Pause for a second, put your rhetoric aside and try to understand how someone with a mental illness could be affected by what you propose.


You can read the full transcript of this question to the Prime Minister and its answer below.

Victoria Atkins MP, 12:24:54 on 14/09/16:

Freedom of speech is a fundamental British value, which is undermined by so called “safe spaces” in our universities, where a sense of righteous entitlement by a minority of students means that their wish not to be offended shuts down debate. As students around the country return to their places of learning at the start of this new academic year, does my Right Honourable Friend agree that university is precisely the place for lively debate and that fear of being offended must not trump freedom of speech?

[Cheers from the Government benches]

Rt Hon Theresa May MP, The Prime Minister, 12:25:37 on 14/09/16:

Well I absolutely agree with my Honourable Friend. We want our universities not just to be places of learning but to be places where there can be open debate which is challenged and people can get involved in that, and I think everybody is finding this concept of safe spaces quite extraordinary, frankly. We want to see that innovation of thought taking place in our universities - that’s how we develop as a country, as a society and as an economy and I absolutely agree with my Honourable Friend.

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