When it comes to someone who might be dealing with suicidal or harmful thoughts, being able to talk with another person can be crucial in helping them get better. But for one university, students who are discovered to have talked about these types of thoughts could be punished.
Northern Michigan University has been revealed to send cautionary letters to students which provide warning to students like Katerina Klawes for the type of trouble they could face if they discuss topics like suicide or self-harm with their friends.
Klawes shared a copy of the letter she received from the school after she went to the university's counseling center to talk with a professional. Although Klawes did not mention in her session any suicidal feelings, she was concerned about the possible trouble she could get into for talking privately with her friends about her emotions.
When she sought clarification from the university, it was made clear that she could talk with her friends about how she was doing, but discussing anything related to suicide or self-destructive was not allowed. If she was to discuss this, she and many other students faced the possibility of facing disciplinary action.
This particular policy by Northern Michigan University exists to protect other students from those who might be experiencing these types of thoughts. Dean of Students Christine Greer has previously explained the possible effect the policy prevents.
"Relying on your friends can be very disruptive to them," said Greer. "Some students may be able to handle it, but many students are completely overwhelmed by it."
However, this policy clearly violates a student's right to free speech but also poses a threat to any vulnerable students who deal with these types of thoughts.
"Communication with a friend is frequently the pivotal first step toward seeking help," said psychiatrist Dr. Mendel Feldsher. "Many students may be more willing to initially share their feelings with a friend than with a school official or therapist. The increasing prevalence of anxiety, depression, and suicidality in college students calls for increasing access to mental health services, not adding to stigma with a policy which promotes increased shame for the depressed and suicidal student."
NMU's policy is unique in the fact that it takes a uncommon approach for schools to prevent suicides on their campuses. For Jed Foundation medical director, Victor Schwartz, this is practically unheard of. The Jed Foundation is an organization which promotes mental health and suicide prevention in the college community.
"The closest to this I've heard is that some schools use their disciplinary process to remove students with suicidal ideation or behavior - but this particular gag order policy is new to me," said Schwartz. "I suspect that the school may be trying to address an overly concrete understanding of the notion of contagion in a problematic way. They are thinking that students talking to each other about suicidal ideas will lead to the student hearing to be more at risk for suicide."
Since the policy first came to attention to the free-speech organization FIRE, NMU has released an official statement on its website acknowledging the students' complaint and welcoming the chance to improve policies for the students. Unfortunately, the complaint was made in December 2015, and FIRE hasn't heard anything back from the university since.
As someone who greatly benefited from having the freedom to talk with my friends about previous destructive and negative thoughts, I know this ability was one of many steps to help me get better. Talking with my friends helped me get confident enough to talk to a professional and take the many steps in dealing with these types of thoughts.
Hopefully for students, Northern Michigan University will address and change this policy soon.