November 4, 2016

College campus under fire for mental health policies

Northern Michigan University recently told a student who was seeking out professional mental health counseling that she was prohibited from speaking to anyone else on campus about her struggles because of the negative effects it could have on other students. She was also told that if she did speak to anyone about it she would face disciplinary action.

Northern Michigan University has recently come under fire for their mental health and counseling policies.
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 In 2015, Katerina Klawes, an NMU student reached out to the campus's counseling center for help after being sexually assaulted the year before, Complex Life reported. She later received an email from Mary Brundage, associate dean of students, that said,  

"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. It is important that you refrain from discussing these issues with other students and use the appropriate sources 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."  

Klawes, worried about doing something wrong and getting into trouble, responded by asking what she could and could not say to people. Brundage responded, "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 is one of many college students on the NMU campus who have been told that they could receive disciplinary action for discussing their mental health struggles or suicidal thoughts. The goal this campus policy was to "protect" students from other students' suicidal thoughts or actions. But, according to many mental health experts, this could be doing more damage than good. Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, told Science of Us, that "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." 

The rate of suicide is between .5 and 7.5 per 100,000 among college students and there are more than 1,000 suicides on college campuses per year. Not being able to talk about or express personal feelings of struggle increase the chances of a person taking their life by suicide. 

Upon hearing about this dilemma, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, became involved. They immediately sent a letter to NMU asking them to remove or change their policy. They said "NMU is imposing a gag order on students at a time when a conversation with a friend may be most needed. Preventing students from simply reaching out to each other for help cuts off the most basic exercise of the right to speak freely." A spokesperson for FIRE said that since NMU failed to respond to the letter by the date given, it went public. 

NMU has since responded saying that their policy has changed. The statement said, "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."

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