Yik Yak, an app that allows individuals to post anonymous 200-character messages that others within a 10-mile radius can read, was designed with college campuses in mind. Messages are often jokes and complaints about school, and can sometimes be negative.

On April 26, a post appeared that drew a stronger response than most.

“Goodbye, Wolverines. As stupid as it might seem, 4/30 will be my last day of existence. It is much easier to tell this anonymously than to my friends directly. They’ll figure it out later. Thank you,” the post read.

Soon after, numerous response posts appeared offering support and urging the poster not to commit suicide.

“As someone recovering from a failed attempted suicide, nothing has made me happier or more proud to go here than seeing everyone rally together in support of an anonymous yakker. Please don’t give up,” one post read.

Jessica Kohnert, a University Museum of Zoology employee, said she read the post and replied asking how she could help and if the poster was willing to meet in person.

“I was pretty persistent about meeting with this person,” Kohnert said. “I understand that it doesn’t matter what’s happened, if you have a stranger that wants to meet with you, it’s odd, but I was hoping to meet with this person to talk to them and hopefully to get them to understand what they’re going through is not just something that happens to them, but it happens to a lot of people, and what they can do about it.”

While the poster did not want to meet with Kohnert, students and community members were not deterred from showing their support. The same day as the post, one person on Yik Yak suggested supporters gather on the Diag wearing maize at 2 p.m. About 25 students participated and held signs with encouraging messages.

Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones attended the rally after receiving an e-mail from a concerned student. In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Jones discussed the three primary reasons for her attendance.

“First, I wanted to show my support for the student body for what I know is a really stressful time given that we are in final exam period, and then I was quickly apprised of the outpouring of support that the individual who had posted the message had received from the community, so I wanted to affirm that,” she said. “Finally, I wasn’t sure how many people would be gathering on the Diag, and how many individuals that are there might be really knowledgeable of the resources on campus. I wanted to make sure that folks who were going to gather with concern and support would know what the campus resources are.”

LSA junior Hannah Maine participated in the rally and said it provided a platform for open discussion about mental health on campus.

“(The event) was definitely positive,” Maine said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to erase the stigma on mental health and to make it easier for people to come out and talk about mental illness like this. This is a step.”

The Department of Public Safety has responded to the Yik Yak post. In an interview with MLive, DPSS spokesperson Diane Brown said law enforcement is seeking to identify the poster, although the process will be difficult because Yik Yak is an anonymous site.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Cliff Lampe, an associate professor in the School of Information who specializes in social media, said students can use social media when they need support because they can articulate thoughts they may not want to in person.

“Social media plays a really important role here, in that it provides a safe space for people to express feelings that they have, but don’t feel comfortable sharing in other contexts,” Lampe said. “You do see a lot of these kinds of suicidal ideations in Yik Yak and other anonymous platforms, and it’s partially because if you submit that to your friends, then you have basically a whole other set of issues to start dealing with.”

Lampe said he thinks police action may be counterproductive.

“I think (the) University police’s involvement would have a chilling effect,” Lampe said. “The police have a responsibility to intervene where they can, but I think the consequence of that intervention will be that people will be less willing to disclose these kinds of feelings. The space will no longer be seen as safe and anonymous as before.”

Before Sunday, representatives from Yik Yak had recently came to campus, and had discussed collaborating with the University to promote positive social media use. However, it was not until after the rally Sunday that the University announced a partnership with the site.

Nikki Sunstrum, director of social media at the University, said the program is more about increasing a positive tone rather than preventing free speech on campus.

“It’s about education and providing resources and proactively instituting a message that promotes a proactive community,” Sunstrum said. “If you look at the blog posts we put out yesterday, it really outlines the standpoint of being not just a consumer, but an activist or an advocate for the community that down-votes negativity for things that are inappropriate.”

The University social media team posted on their blog a guide to using Yik Yak and ways to respond positively to the situation. While Sunstrum said she is supportive of the University’s involvement online, she said the University is not on Yik Yak and does not want to censor anybody.

“We’re definitely not trying to discourage anyone from sharing anything,” Sunstrum said. “This is just about making it public that we are part of the collective in supporting the community as well.”

Lampe was concerned that if the University partnered with social media, it would disrupt the important conversations that can happen online.

“I have more concerns about Yik Yak and the University trying to create a positive tone,” Lampe said. “I think it’s different to say we want to offer support for people struggling with mental health issues, and it’s a different thing to say we want to help people be able to respond when people express that they have negative emotions, than a forced positive attitude. It doesn’t necessarily serve the community in the same way.”

Lampe offered an alternative approach, suggesting that Counseling and Psychological Services delegate representatives on Yik Yak to respond to posts such as the one that sparked Sunday’s rally.

CAPS only recently joined Facebook in January, but also has an app titled Stressbusters Wellness where students can read tips about how to destress and get immediate support when they need it.

Christine Asidao, associate director of community engagement and outreach at CAPS, said she was unsure if Lampe’s suggestion would be something they would implement, but that they would be interested in supporting this positive type of engagement on Yik Yak by helping to provide accurate information on CAPS services.

“For us, it’s really about creating a community of caring,” Asidao said. “We want folks to know about what the services are, how they can help themselves, how they can help friends, and so we try to do that in as many ways as possible, so now we are using social media in terms of that.”

Asidao was not surprised the incident unraveled on Yik Yak, but she said she was happy about the way the community responded.

“Because it is anonymous, some negative things were really happening,” Asidao said. “But what really was such a positive piece of it was when our students were letting us know that students would post anonymously that they were struggling, that they were wondering, ‘Should I seek help?’ or ‘Should I even try CAPS? I’ve never been there.’ And the responses were always really, really positive.”

CAPS Director Todd Sevig said CAPS has focused on changing campus climate and encouraging students to visit the center. In 2011, CAPS launched the Do Something, Say Something campaign for students who are in distress and those contemplating suicide. They also launched Messages of Hope, a project that involves students writing positive messages of reassurance on wooden tiles and placing them around campus.

The center’s push to eliminate the stigma associated with seeking help seems to be working. This year, CAPS experienced a 20-percent increase in the number of students seeking help each month in comparison to last year.

“A healthy community means we look out for each other,” Sevig said. “And that could mean at 3:00 in the morning, that could be online, and so we are just very appreciative and want to do more of the kind of response that happened over the weekend.”

Maine said other resources besides CAPS should promote themselves to students in order to further reduce the stigma.

“Everyone has mental health. There has been an upward incline of people coming in to CAPS for services and then that means that CAPS has like a six-week waiting until someone can get in, which is unfortunate and I think that definitely needs to be fixed. There’s a lot of resources on campus that people don’t know about, and that need to be talked about more and shared. Like everyone knows about CAPS, but nobody knows about the psychiatrist at UHS.”

Kohnert said she thought the University could do more to promote mental health discussion among students.

“I think that to have more peer-to-peer support is important. I think a lot of times it’s kind of hard to go to somebody who’s older, somebody who’s not going through the same thing as you, and talk to them about your problems,” Kohnert said. “I think that if we can have more support between students, I think that that would be wonderful.”

Jones stressed the importance of students maintaining their health and wellness while striving toward academic success.

“Grades are one indicator of your success, but your health and your wellness and your well-being is what is most important,” Jones said. “I think we have to be conscientious and think about this at Michigan because, given who our student body is, we have students here who have been enormously successful in everything that they’ve done around their grades to be able to gain admission to the University, and then they’re in courses with a whole campus community that is just as bright and as capable as they are, and I think that can cause some folks to have a different level of stress than maybe they had before. We’ve got to be attentive to that and providing outlets.”

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