Instagram, Northern Michigan University
Northern Michigan University is telling its students not to share “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts,” not even with their friends.
A student at the university, Katerina Klawes, was sexually assaulted and wanted to seek the help of a professional. However, after one of her counseling sessions, the young woman received a disturbing email from Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage, who warned her against discussing her issue with other people.
“Engaging in any discussion of suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions with other students interferes with, or can hinder, their pursuit of education and community,” a part of the email read. “If you involve other students in suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions you will face disciplinary action.”
In essence, the university was warning a mentally vulnerable student going through a tough period not to discuss her feelings to her friends, making Klawes feel like a social pariah. It was also violating the student’s freedom of speech and posed a further risk of self harm by shutting down an avenue which can potentially intervene when a student is feeling suicidal.
Klawes wasn’t the only student to receive such a warning. The administration confessed to sending out letters to around 25 to 30 students each semester that discussing their feelings in the aftermath of an ordeal may lead to disciplinary actions.
When her emails became a topic of conversation in the university, Klawes started a Change.org petition asking NMU to amend its policies regarding self-destructive speech. After she received thousands of signatures and the attention of the local media, NMU pledged to improve its practices. However, a year later, NMU has failed to commit to this and told the batch of 2016 summer students that they would face severe consequences if they discussed the topic with other students.
This isn't just censorship; it's an evil straitjacket on the soul. Utterly idiotic to tell students this. https://t.co/qTaBoKYlY1— Luke H. Davis (@LukeHDavis) September 23, 2016
This isn't just censorship, this is bad medicine. NMU prohibits students having thoughts of self-harming from... https://t.co/ExPsIRHQcY— Robby Soave (@robbysoave) September 22, 2016
Confide in another student that you're cutting or thinking about suicide, get expelled. https://t.co/I1H6K8oh4V— Tim Spalding (@librarythingtim) September 22, 2016
On NMU: "I am appalled that college administrators thought that this was a sensible or acceptable policy..." Same. https://t.co/vceSNOx342— Will Creeley (@WillatFIRE) September 22, 2016
The school very well may be doing more harm than good with this approach.
“NMU is imposing a gag order on students at a time when a conversation with a friend may be most needed,” said Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “Preventing students from simply reaching out to each other for help cuts off the most basic exercise of the right to speak freely.”
“There are two very serious problems with this approach,” said Victor Schwartz, medical director at a mental health and suicide prevention organization, Jed Foundation. “First is the degree to which this directly stigmatizes students with emotional problems — can you think of a comparable situation in which a student with medical illness would be prohibited from talking to others about it? So this policy conveys to the student that they are 'evil' or a pariah in some way by virtue of having these feelings/thoughts.”
According to Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), 80 percent of female college rape victims do not report instances of sexual violence to the police, with 20 percent of them not doing so for “fear of reprisal.”
With a policy like NMU’s, that percentage can only increase.