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The Problem With Northern Michigan University’s Suicide Discussion Policy

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In the past few days, an article has been circulating discussing Northern Michigan University’s policy that students who discuss “suicidal or self-destructive thoughts or actions with other students” will face disciplinary actions. The university claims it changed the policy in January of 2016, but students have reported being told the policy as recently as summer 2016 orientation.

This isn’t a news article. So I won’t go into all the specific details, but I will say this: These types of policies are not just outdated. They’re dangerous. I’ll go further: Telling people they cannot talk about suicidal thoughts is literally life-threatening.

In Thomas Joiner’s book “Why People Die By Suicide,” he lists “thwarted belongingness” as a necessary component that leads to suicidal behavior. Joiner describes belongingness as a “combination of frequent interaction plus persistent caring.” He says, “in order to meet the need to belong, the interactions an individual has must be frequent and positive.”

In essence, Joiner is saying you need to feel like you’re connected with people and that you belong. Going even further, John Caeioppo and William Patrick’s book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection,” spends nearly 300 pages making the case that loneliness (even the perception of loneliness) leads to drastic problems in physical, mental, social and every other kind of health.

So why is it an acceptable policy to push students who are feeling alone into further isolation by threatening them if they talk to their fellow students about what they’re feeling? The road to wellness is thick with hard conversations. Why are we making them harder?

I can honestly say that some of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had in my life have been the ones where I’ve been the most honest about what’s hurting me. I can also say they’ve been the most beneficial conversations in the long run. There’s something healing about naming your pain, something sacred about having the people around you tell you truth when you need it most.

As someone who’s wanted out of this life and tried to get there on multiple occasions, I can tell you this: I needed people to tell me I mattered. I needed people to tell me I wasn’t alone. I needed people to tell me I wasn’t a burden, that I was more to this world than the pain I’d inflicted on others.

Other people can’t tell us these things if they don’t know we need them. People cannot love you well if they don’t know what’s hurting you. I can honestly say I don’t know if I’d still be here if I hadn’t found people who were willing to fight the lies in my head with me by telling me the truth.

I find it tragic that the original form letter sent to students includes the line, “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.” I’m not sure what definition of community is being used there, but I’ve never known a community to get worse when people discovered a safe space they could be genuine and vulnerable about their pain.

So please, push back against policies like this. The stigma surrounding mental health, and especially suicidal thoughts, is strong enough already. For us to be healthy and whole, we need to be encouraged to talk, not forbidden from it. Open conversation saves lives.

(For more on the news stories that prompted this article, click here.)

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: September 27, 2016
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