Northern Michigan University continues to threaten to punish students who discuss suicidal thoughts, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE cites one NMU student who received a warning after seeking out help for sexual assault. According to RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest International Network), 80 percent of female college-age victims of sexual violence don't report the attacks to police, with 20 percent of them reportedly not doing so out of “fear of reprisal.” Fear of expulsion, like in NMU's case, could only increase that percentage.
In the winter of 2015, Katerina Klawes reached out to the NMU’s counseling office after being sexually assaulted the year before. On March 25, 2015 Klawes got an email from Mary Brundage, associate dean of students, in which Klawes was not just discouraged but prohibited from talking about “self-destructive thoughts or actions” with others unless she wanted to face “disciplinary action.”
The email read: “...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.”
Klawes, worried about getting in trouble, asked if responding to people concerned about her well being was enough to get her in trouble. Brundage then specified what Klawes couldn’t say: “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.”
Last November The Mining Journal reported as many as 25 to 30 students each semester get a letter like the one Klawes did, Science of Us said. Students complained about the policy that December at a board of trustees meeting. Although NMU released a statement saying it had heard them loud and clear, the policy remains. Enter FIRE, which sent a letter to NMU last month asking to put an end to its policy that seemed to be still in place. FIRE wrote in the letter, “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.” In the letter, FIRE cited evidence that NMU was still practicing the policy, writing, “[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.” A FIRE spokesperson said that since NMU failed to respond to FIRE’s letter by the date given, it’s gone public.
Like FIRE, Victor Schwartz, medical director at the Jed Foundation, which promotes mental health and prevents suicide among college students, said NMU’s policy was doing more harm than good. Schwartz told Science of Us:
“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.”
Schwartz added that the policy doesn’t allow people to connect with friends or give someone an opportunity to intervene.