NMU mental health policy questioned

MARQUETTE – Students supporting the “I Care Project” at Northern Michigan University will write “I care” on their wrists Wednesday to stand in solidarity with students threatened with disciplinary action for seeking support from fellow students.

A petition demanding changes to NMU’s policy about students at risk of self-harm or suicide gathered about 2,000 signatures between Wednesday and Friday nights, including prominent alumni like professional ice hockey player Justin Florek of Marquette and Marquette Mayor Pro Tem Sarah Reynolds.

Former Associated Students of NMU President Katerina Klawes said the petition, which details 10 demands relating to the policy, garnered more than 1,000 signatures within the first 24 hours. She said she did not create the petition, but the student who did wishes to remain anonymous.

The demands react to an email that the dean of students office has, for a number of years, sent to specific students who have expressed suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions and are engaged with professional staff for an assessment, said Derek Hall, NMU’s assistant vice president of marketing and communications.

About 14 students have received the email so far this semester, and the average is about 25 to 30 students each semester, Hall said.

Sent from Associate Dean of Students Mary Brundage, the letter states: “Folks at NMU care about you and want to make sure you are okay.”

The letter directs students to counseling services, available 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. If experiencing an emergency or intentions of self-harm, the letter directs the student to an emergency room or to dial 911.

“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 success in the NMU community,” the letter states. “If you involve other students in your suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions, you will face disciplinary action.”

Reynolds, who was elected mayor pro tem Monday and has served on the Marquette City Commission since 2013, commented on the petition.

“As a former student of NMU and as a person who is elected to run the city, I find this policy outdated, and terrible,” Reynolds wrote. “I as a city commissioner make myself available to my constituents 24 hours a day and I think if NMU is so worried about students disrupting other students, maybe the dean of students office should make themselves available 24 hours a day.”

Hall said the university protocol, in its latest form, of taking disciplinary action against students seeking mental health support from fellow students has been in place since 2013. The protocol is meant to protect students from the potentially burdensome responsibility of holding another students’ life in their hands, he explained.

“NMU’s priority is to be sure these students are working with mental health professionals,” Hall said in a statement. “These students need more help that what friends and roommates can provide.”

Klawes said, according to her research and contact with numerous individuals, the letter has been used for at least five years, and it’s hard to know at this point how many students it has hurt.

“The Marquette, and wildcat community in particular, is very close-knit,” Klawes said. “It’s a very supportive community, and this policy goes against everything that I feel that Northern stands for. We’re the kind of campus where we smile and wave to everyone walking by, and we deeply care about others. This policy as I’ve heard … makes (students struggling with suicide or self-harm) feel like they’re a burden, … especially at a time when they need their friends and support group.”

But some of the demands in the petition violate federal laws, Hall said, adding that NMU’s protocols and policies must evolve quickly to keep up with changing mandates – such as the fact the school can no longer send a student home for self-harming behaviors.

Klawes said she is consulting with an attorney who could not find any violations in the demands.

At a previous university where Hall worked, he said the school learned the roommate of a suicidal student had been instructed by the student’s parents in how to manage their daughter – from dispensing medication to dealing with various behaviors.

“This girl was just drowning in this responsibility, it had escalated so much,” Hall said. “And we find our students care about each other – that’s fabulous. We love that. But in certain cases, we find students providing mental health care to students that need professional help, and that’s where we’re coming from.”

Klawes said much more than feeling overwhelmed, students she’s spoken with are glad to see that person reaching out. Some have attended funerals and wish their friend had reached out, she added.

As ASNMU President last year, Klawes said she and the student government tried to change the policy, but despite verbal agreement from administrators it never was.

Hall said changing the policy is on the table and he feels the petition is a positive vehicle for discussion.

“For our students to have a voice is a good thing and we welcome that,” Hall said. “Conversations will happen. The 10 demands, there’s some good input in there, but there’s also some illegal requests in there. So we have to balance that, you know – what’s best for our students and our student body and what we are required to do by law.”

The petition can be found online at www.change.org/p/northern-michigan-university-the-i-care-project-revise-nmu-student-self-destructive-behavior-policy.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.


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