I've written about some pretty outrageous cases of university censorship, like Bergen Community College's idiotic crusade against Game of Thrones t-shirts or University of Wisconsin-Stout's imbecilic response to Firefly references. The Foundation for Individual Rights In Education — FIRE, the boogeyman of Alternet writers and the professionally offended — has played a major role in vindicating rights in many of those cases.
But I've never seen a FIRE case that outraged me more.
Northern Michigan University had — and perhaps still has — a policy subjecting students to discipline if they share suicidal thoughts with their peers. And they've threatened to use it.
After seeking counseling following a sexual assault, NMU student Katerina Klawes received one of these emails in March 2015, informing her that it was “important that [she] refrain from discussing these issues with other students.” An administrator clarified to Klawes in a subsequent email that she “cannot discuss with other students suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions.”
Words are inadequate to convey how wrong-headed, reckless, and cruel this is. FIRE's letter explains why it's a First Amendment travesty. But more compellingly than that, it's a human travesty, a sick elevation of student management over survival. As I've talked about before, reaching out to someone — anyone — can be the difference between life and death for someone suffering from severe depression. Threatening a student with discipline if they utter a cry for help to peers — who may be the only ones with whom the student feels a connection — could fatally suppress that crucial plea for help.
I'm more of a consumer of mental health expertise than a provider, so to express what a terrible idea this is I reached out to a high school classmate, Dr. Mendel Feldsher, a frighteningly well-qualified psychiatrist and clinical professor of psychiatry. Part of Mendel's work since 2002 (along with forensic and expert work) has been counselling college students at the Claremont Colleges. Here's how he put it:
A policy which prohibits college students from communicating their suicidal or self-harming thoughts with their peers promotes isolation and disconnectedness which increases the risk for suicide. The simple act of disclosing ones suicidal thinking to a friend can itself be quite therapeutic and can interrupt the crescendo of depressive cognitions which can lead a student to act on suicidal thinking. 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. Threatening disciplinary action for student to student communication regarding suicidal thinking sends the clear message, “You are an unacceptable burden to others” which is a harmful message, particularly to a student who is depressed and suicidal. 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 treated many depressed and suicidal students who would not have come to my attention but for their decision to reach out to a peer who urged them to seek treatment. I have never treated a student whose primary issue was the trauma they suffered as a result of a peer’s self-disclosure regarding their self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
This is a shockingly bad, inhumane policy. Let's hope FIRE's letter inspires NMU to renounce it quickly, clearly, and unequivocally. Even if they do, I am appalled that college administrators thought that this was a sensible or acceptable policy, and I question their suitability to work with students.
Jesse Singal has a post about this as well.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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