I am covered in tattoos. The art on my body encompasses everything from a phoenix to a unicorn to a taco and beyond. Truthfully, I’ve lost track of just how many times I have sat on an artist’s table since my first tattoo 24 years ago. Some of the art work represents something special in my life – the unicorn commemorates the time I ran the iconic Boston Marathon; a large brown pelican on my right forearm is a reminder of my wedding day in Mexico where the massive birds dove into the breaking waves during our ceremony; and a pirate ship breaking through a storm, the jolly roger launched high on it’s mast, reminds me how I fought, and beat, colorectal cancer.
I also have tattoos whose meaning is more in the story of how they came to be rather than the art itself. The aforementioned taco, adorned with flowers and winking a long lashed eye, is a memento of a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; I have smoking skulls, one, a gentleman with a pipe and the other, a lady with a cigarette, that are the result of a game of tattoo roulette in Mesa, Arizona; and I have a small faded black art sun that crests my ankle which is the outcome of a university scavenger hunt that could only be won with a photo of a student getting everlasting body art. Regardless of how or why they came to grace my skin, I love my tattoos. I love the idea that a person can weave their life’s story onto their flesh in dark lines and saturated colours, the shades and tones accenting the moments that make them who they are.
This past week I added a new piece of art to my collection. On Thursday night I had a semicolon tattooed on the side of my left arm just below the wrist joint. It’s only about an inch big, a stark contrast to the phoenix that covers my back from shoulder to thigh, and unless you were specifically looking for it you might not even notice it among the surrounding strawberries. This particular piece of punctuation is not an eye catcher like the rest of the art decorating my arms. In fact, it is by far the smallest tattoo I have anywhere on my body. It comes, however, with what might be the biggest meaning of them all.
Project Semicolon and YEG Mental Health
In 2013, Project Semicolon was founded in Green Bay, Wisconsin by Amy Bleuel after her father died by suicide. According to their Instagram bio,
“Project Semicolon is a movement dedicated to presenting hope & love to those who struggle with mental illness, suicide, addiction & self-injury.”
The semicolon was chosen as a symbol to represent the idea that we are the writers of our own story and like an author, we have choice in the direction of the narrative. We can punctuate a sentence bluntly with a period, equalling a full stop, or we can bridge the space between two critical points with a semicolon and have the story continue.
“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life,”
As reported in an article on upworthy.com, Project Semicolon began as a grass roots movement with people drawing and photographing the symbol on their bodies. It later evolved into a world wide phenomenon with people all over the globe “tattooing the mark as a reminder of their struggle, victory, and survival.”
Inspired by Project Semicolon, a group of Edmontonians came together in 2015 to form YEG Mental Health (formerly called The Edmonton Mental Health Awareness Committee or EMHAC). It is their mission “to raise awareness and reduce stigma surrounding mental illness by helping educate and produce events that promote inclusion, diversity, hope and inspiration for those living with and loving someone with mental illness, while also raising funds for underfunded mental health programs.” (https://www.yegmentalhealth.com).
To carry out their goals to educate, as well as spread awareness about and raise money for mental health organizations, they began the #YEGSEMICOLON Tattoo Event. This is an annual week-long affair where select local tattoo shops offer the semicolon tattoo and donate a portion of the proceeds to organizations that run mental health programs in the Edmonton area.
What It All Means To Me
You already know that I love tattoos. You may or may not know that I am also passionate about creating awareness and reducing stigma around mental health and mental illness. In recent months I’ve shared some of my story on social media as well as here on the blog. For the most part my confessions have been met with an outpouring of support and care but not everyone agrees that we should be talking openly about mental health and mental illness. I’ve been criticized for sharing things that are inappropriate in a public forum and told that our kids don’t need to read about mental illness on Instagram, lest they get ideas into their heads that weren’t brewing there in the first place. At the risk of further condemnation my response to this attempted censuring is simple. Fuck That.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I didn’t identify it as being that until very recently but in the wake of seeking and obtaining professional help I can see it very clearly in hindsight. What I was told was me “wearing my heart on my sleeve” in my youth and convinced as my “inability to cope with stress” as an adult were the definitive signs of mental illness. Decades of rhetoric around “silence as strength” and “emotion as weakness” led me to believe that there was something wrong with me and I suffered in the shame of my inner dialogue well into my late 30s. This type of programming is hard to delete and I’m not sure I will ever be fully free of it but from my experiences over the last few years I know one thing to be one hundred percent, unequivocally true – if we are going to stop mental health challenges and mental illness from having a devastating impact on our lives we NEED to talk about it openly.
“I do not agree that silence is strength. I reject the notion that vulnerability is weakness.”
Don’t Take My Word For It
I’m not trying to make the argument that we should all post our deepest, darkest secrets on the world wide web; not even I’m going to do that. What I’m saying is that when we share our stories with someone we trust and in turn, that someone responds in a loving, caring, and understanding way, we can remove some of the shame and stigma that surrounds mental health and mental illness and people can begin to heal. I need you to understand that I am not being hyperbolic when I say that all of this is having a devastating impact on our lives. Here are some global statistics for you:
- There are 1 billion people with mental illness worldwide.
- 300 million people world wide have anxiety.
- 1.1 million people across the globe die every year by suicide.
This is not a “them” problem. Canadians are struggling too:
- In any given year, 1 in 5 people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness.
- By age 40, about 50% of the Canadian population will have or have had a mental illness.
- About 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide – an average of almost 11 suicides a day. It affects people of all ages and all backgrounds.
As for those folks who think we shouldn’t talk to our youth about mental health/illness, let’s take a look at how this is affecting them:
- Young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely to experience mental illness and/or substance use disorders than any other age group.
- After accidents, suicide is the the second leading cause of death for people aged 15 to 24.
- In 2018, suicide was the leading cause of death for children aged 10 to 14.
- Indigenous people, especially youth, die by suicide at rates much higher than non-Indigenous people. First Nations youth aged 15 to 24 die by suicide about 6 times more often than non-Indigenous youth. Suicide rates for Inuit youth are about 24 times the national average.
I cannot stress this enough…this is a Big. Fucking. Deal. To compound the problem, people are not getting help. Do you know why they aren’t getting help? According to a study conducted by Sun Life in 2021, nearly one in four Canadians don’t seek help because they are embarrassed. This percentage is the highest among young people. This reason is only surpassed by the affordability of mental health care, making it the second biggest barrier to a person getting the assistance they need. (https://www.ipsos.com/en-ca/news-polls/six-in-ten-canadians-currently-experiencing-mental-health-issues-but-more-than-half-havent-sought-treatment). The Bell Let’s Talk initiative puts this number even higher stating, “Two out of three people suffer in silence, fearing judgement and rejection.” (https://letstalk.bell.ca/en/)
The people we (YOU) love do not seek help because they are embarrassed and afraid of being judged. This deep rooted shame is the result of eons of the ideology that if a person is experiencing a mental health challenge or has a mental illness, there is something wrong with them. This has led to generations of internalized shame, external admonishment and widespread cultural stigma.
The only way to break this stigma is to talk about it. The more we are educated about mental health and mental illness, the more we can disassemble the judgements we carry and build thoughtful responses (both outwardly and inwardly) when confronted with it. Likewise, the more we talk about it, the more the decision makers who govern us will be unable to ignore the fact that this is a healthcare issue that is drastically underfunded and requires attention. Shedding light on the topic will remove two of the biggest barriers those with mental health challenges face today. There is no doubt that it is scary to be vulnerable, to tell our stories and to ask for hep but I think the statistics noted above are even scarier. Silence is strength? Fuck That.
#YEGSEMICOLON Tattoo Event
Back in April a DM appeared in my Instagram messenger from a friend. She had forwarded a post from @yeg.mentalhealth about the #YEGSEMICOLON Tattoo Event and added an accompanying question.
“Want to add to your collection?”
Ummmmm…does a bear shit in the woods?! There was no question about it. I was in!
The 2022 #YEGSEMICOLON Tattoo Event ran May 10th-16th. Five participating shops offered a choice of three designs which were chosen by the YEG Mental Health committee. The semicolon was one of the available options, as well as the chemical structure of dopamine and a phoenix. I opted for the semicolon and my friend, being a self-described “science nerd” chose the dopamine. What made this even more exciting for me is that my friend is not heavily tattooed. In fact, she only has one small, hidden tattoo, which is the result of her supporting a friend who really wanted to stick it to her parents 20+ years ago. I didn’t even know she had it until last Thursday when she told me the story on our way home from our mental health date.
We arrived at our chosen shop, Capital Tattoo, just before 7 pm on Thursday evening and our tattoos were complete in well under 30 minutes. I barely had enough time to register that something was happening before it was over, which was a nice change from the hours long sittings, clenching under the buzzing of a needle, that I have done in the past. But make no mistake about it, the size of the tattoo and the absence of any measurable pain did not negate the immense emotion and pride I felt when I saw the tiny, dark marking on my arm.
Our Stories Have Power
I do not agree that silence is strength. I reject the notion that vulnerability is weakness. Every single human being on the planet has thoughts, feelings, and emotions; we all need to feel connected to others; we all have to learn to navigate the ups and downs of life. This is mental health. We all have it. To deny it, suppress it, or to judge others for theirs is to renounce the very thing that makes us human.
Not everyone has mental illness but again, we will all have some kind of experience with it. According to the CMHA, “Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time either through their own experience, or that of a family member, friend or colleague.” (https://cmha.ca/brochure/fast-facts-about-mental-illness/). For this reason it is imperative that we learn how to talk openly about mental heath and mental illness; that we challenge our own biases around these topics; that we teach our children it’s ok to ask for help; that we share parts of our own struggle with people we trust; and that we create safe and supportive environments where people can talk about their experience. Our stories are powerful and without them, we will not break the stigma that causes so many to suffer. To share, to be heard and to be validated are small actions that have a big impact.
Stories would not make sense without the symbols that arrange the narrative, and punctuation without plot is just a bunch of nondescript markings on a page. That’s why it was equally as important for me to both get the tattoo and write this blog. With thousands of people wearing the semicolon permanently on their skin world wide, you’re a bound to come across it somewhere and now you might have a bit of an understanding as to what it all means. These folks too, have a story that continues;
Mental Health Resources
If you or anyone you know is struggling with their mental health or mental illness there are many incredible organizations in the Edmonton Area that can help. I can’t possibly list them all here but below I’ve listed some 24 hour help lines that are a great place to start.
The Edmonton Distress Line (24 hour general crisis line): tel:780-482-4357
The Canadian Suicide Prevention Service (24 hour line for anyone struggling with thoughts of suicide): tel:833-456-4567
Hope for Wellness Help Line (24 hour crisis support line for Indigenous peoples): tel:1-855-242-3310
The Brite Line (24 hour crisis line for LGBTQ2S+ folks): tel:1-844-702-7483
Access 24/7 (provides a single point of access to any adult in the Edmonton area struggling with mental health or addictions; also operates a 24 hour mental health emergency room): tel:780-424-2424
The Kids Help Phone (24 hour line that provides professional support, information, and referrals to any young person struggling with a problem): Call: tel:1-800-668-6868 Text: 686868
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