A University Threatened to Punish Students Who Discussed Their Suicidal Thoughts With Friends (Updated)

Northern Michigan University Photo: Bobak Ha’Eri

(Update: Northern Michigan University has issued a statement, which can be read at the end of this article, in which it claims the policy in question was changed early this year, but that the university failed to communicate that fact to the student body.)

In the winter of 2015, a student at Northern Michigan University named Katerina Klawes sought out help at the university’s counseling office. She had been sexually assaulted in July of 2014 and wanted to talk about her experiences with a professional.

On March 25, 2015, she got an alarming email from Mary Brundage, associate dean of students at NMU, which read, in part, as follows:

Dear Kat,

I received a report that others are worried about your well-being. I’d like to meet with you to discuss your options for support and see what I can do to help …

Our self-destructive policy is currently under review, as stated on top of the policy, so it is important that you know a couple of thing [sic]. First, you will not be removed as a student for seeking help from the appropriate resources. You can use any of the resources listed below without worry. Second, Engaging [sic] 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. It is important that you refrain from discussing these issues with other students and use the appropriate resources listed below. If you involve other students in suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions you will face disciplinary action. My hope is that, knowing exactly what could result in discipline, you can avoid putting yourself in that position. [emphasis mine]

Take care,

The letter was confusing for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Klawes hadn’t even mentioned feeling suicidal during her counseling. For another, it seemed to be saying that she could get in disciplinary trouble simply for talking to her friends about how she was feeling in the aftermath of her assault, which was troubling. So Klawes quickly replied to Brundage, seeking clarification: “I was also wondering if I respond to concerned people, is that enough to get me in trouble?” she wrote. “I do not want to worry others by not responding and I do not want to have the possibility of getting expelled by reaching out to my friends during this emotionally trying time and I see the possibility of misunderstanding or getting more concerned.” In her response Brundage reiterated exactly which subjects Klawes was prohibited from discussing with friends: “You can certainly talk to your friends about how you are doing in general and set their minds at ease. You cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions. It is a very specific limitation.”

As it turns out, Klawes was just one of dozens of NMU students, if not more, who have been told over the years that they could face disciplinary action for discussing their suicidal thoughts, according to an investigation and press release just published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The ostensible goal of the policy was to “protect” students from other students’ suicidal thoughts and actions. But this policy, in addition to violating students’ free-speech rights, could also have done serious harm to vulnerable students at NMU, according to mental-health experts.

After FIRE first caught wind of NMU’s policy and gathered some information about it, a senior program officer there, Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, sent NMU’s president, Fritz J. Erickson, and several other NMU administrators a letter, on August 25, laying out the recent history of the policy, and alerting administrators that it both — in FIRE’s view — violated students’ free-speech rights by prohibiting them from engaging in private discussions about a particular subject, and posed a potential mental-health risk in light of what researchers know about suicide risk factors. (The above emails, and much of the background information in this article, come from FIRE’s letter, which notes that as a public university NMU has stricter rules on its ability to curtail student speech than a private school would.)

As the letter explains, within the NMU community, the policy of restricting the free speech of suicidal or potentially suicidal students had been the source of some heated controversy — controversy only exacerbated by the fact that the administration had acknowledged to the local student paper, The Mining Journal, last November (paywalled) that “about 25-30 students per semester receive a letter” informing them they could be disciplined for “involving other students in their self-destructive words or actions[.]” Christine Greer, the dean of students, was quoted in another Mining Journal article at that time playing up the idea that suicidal students could be harming their friends by reaching out to them: “[R]elying on your friends can be very disruptive to them,” she said. “Some students may be able to handle it, but many students are completely overwhelmed by it.”

All this led to some local activism on the issue. Klawes, for example, posted a Change.org petition calling for an end to the policy, racking up a couple thousand signatures. The initial response was promising: After students complained at a December 2015 board of trustees meeting, NMU published a statement on its website informing them that their voices had been heard and that the “university welcomes the opportunity to improve its processes and policies to serve the best interest of its students while upholding our ethical and legal responsibilities.” But according to FIRE, it’s been radio silence since then — the school hasn’t announced any plans to change the practice. (See update below) In fact, it appears to be ongoing: “[A]t least one incoming NMU freshman for the 2016–2017 academic year, attending a First Year Student Orientation Session, reported that her group of orientees was told they could face negative consequences if they discussed thoughts of self-harm with other students,” notes the letter. The letter asks for a response by September 9. According to a FIRE spokesperson, the organization never heard back at all, which is why the organization has gone public.

FIRE is a free-speech organization, not a mental-health one, but its letter and press release quote various experts who were outraged by the policy. “Communication with a friend is frequently the pivotal first step toward seeking help, and many students may be more willing to initially share their feelings with a friend than with a school official or therapist,” Dr. Mendel Feldsher, a psychiatrist with more than a decade of experience in the Claremont Colleges’ counseling system, explained to FIRE in the press release. “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.”

“I have never heard of a school doing this before,” Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting mental health and preventing suicide among college students, told Science of Us in an email. “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.” Schwartz is referring to the fairly common and controversial practice of colleges and universities dis-enrolling students and removing them from campus to avoid the liability issues that could ensue if they kill or severely injure themselves — an issue that has gotten a fair bit of attention, such as in this 2014 New Yorker article.

NMU’s policy was much different, much less common — it’s unclear any other American university does this, though I’ll update this article if similar policies are churned up by the wake of this article and FIRE’s report — and far more restrictive. According to Schwartz, it likely stemmed from a misunderstanding about how suicide “works.” “I suspect that the school may be trying to address an overly concrete understanding of the notion of contagion in a problematic way,” he said. “They are thinking that students talking to each other about suicidal ideas will lead to the student hearing to be at more risk for suicide — [but] except for extremely rare occurrence of ‘suicide pacts’ (usually young people deciding to die together — think Romeo and Juliet) the idea of people hearing about a suicidal friend leading them to suicide is extraordinarily unlikely.”

Instead, he explained, this policy was likely to put the suicidal student themselves at heightened risk.

There are two very serious problems with this approach. 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.

More problematic is the fact that we know that students in distress are most likely to reach out to friends. If the system acts to shut this down, we are decreasing the likelihood of someone finding out and being able to intervene helpfully when someone is suicidal. So the school is promulgating a policy that has the chance or potentially increasing risk by lowering opportunities for early case identification and intervention — in order to prevent a much much rarer event of suicide ideation contagion! Not an approach I would be advocating. [lightly edited for formatting]

FIRE’s letter hits on some of these same points. In a footnote, for example, it points out that in 2008 “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control endorsed the promotion of positive social connectedness as a strategy for suicide prevention.” It would be hard to come up with a more effective way of severing social connectedness than not only discouraging students from talking about their suicidal thoughts, but also actively threatening them for doing so.

As damaging as NMU’s policy has likely been for students there, it isn’t particularly difficult to solve: Destigmatization is such a vital and frequently discussed subject in the mental-health field that researchers and clinicians have developed reams of material on how to safely and respectfully discuss subjects like self-harm. Hopefully, NMU will look to them for guidance as it seeks to reform its outdated policy.

Update, 9/26: Below is a statement NMU is sending out to the entire campus later today, according to a spokesman there. The statement indicates that the self-harm policy in question had been changed earlier this year (in January, according to a statement posted Friday). The spokesman also confirmed to me that the university never announced the change in policy, which can explain why some students were still under the impression it was in place as late as this semester’s orientation session, and didn’t respond to FIRE’s letter. I’ve changed tenses throughout the article to reflect the fact that the policy is no longer in place.

DATE: September 26, 2016

TO: NMU Students, Faculty & Staff

TOPIC: Addressing NMU’s protocols to students with self-harm behavior

NMU does not forbid, in writing or verbally, students from talking to others about self-harm thoughts. We acknowledge that changes to the self-harm letter and protocol were not effectively communicated to campus in early 2016 when they took effect.

What we do:

· The Dean of Students Office reaches out and requests a face-to-face meeting with students who express self-harm thoughts and/or exhibit self-destructive behavior.

· NMU provides a list of 24/7 resources to assist students and encourages them to use the resources.

· NMU provides free professional counseling services to students.

· Information concerning mental health support services is provided to students and parents during the annual orientation sessions.

What we don’t do:

· The NMU Counseling Center does not share private information with Dean of Students Office or others on campus.

· NMU does not withdraw students from classes who express self-harm thoughts and/or exhibit self-destructive behavior.

· NMU does not mandate a meeting with the Dean of Students Office.

· NMU does not mandate psychological assessments.

As a result of changes in federal regulations, NMU, like all universities, is awaiting further guidance from the Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights concerning protocols to assist students who are a danger to themselves.

In the Chronicle of Education [sic] today:

In rare cases, said Dr. Schwartz, who is also a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, students who are worried they might kill themselves have refused treatment and asked classmates to keep watch on them. During exam periods or other stressful times, a roommate might have trouble concentrating or staying up all night “performing 24-hour watches and keeping track of their roommates,” he said. “It makes sense for a university to step in, in an extreme case like that, but a blanket policy does more harm than good,” said Dr. Schwartz. http://www.chronicle.com/article/A-University-Draws-Fire-for/237897

Only once in 10 years has an NMU student been charged with a Student Code violation due to extreme and rare circumstances such as those listed in the quote above.

A School Threatened to Punish Its Suicidal Students