Grammar pedants have long known that punctuation is everything. And even casual language buffs can tell you that commas save lives (surely you’ve seen the ‘Let’s eat Grandma’ vs. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ meme). But to thousands who may have never thought twice about a dangling modifier or a misplaced appositive, the semicolon has become their reason for enduring.
Thanks to Amy Bleuel, the often misunderstood symbol has morphed from a simple punctuation mark to a badge of pride for those who struggle with depression, suicide, addiction, anxiety, and self-injury.
Bleuel started the nonprofit movement Project Semicolon in April 2013 to honor her father, who took his own life, and to give voice to her own fight with mental illness. The idea was to encourage anyone haunted by these demons to draw a semicolon on their body, photograph it, and share it on a given day to encourage love and to inspire.
“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,” explains Project Semicolon’s website.
Since its inception, Project Semicolon has transformed from a once-off social media initiative into a full-fledged movement and awareness campaign for mental health and suicide prevention. And just as a once-fleeting call-to-action has given way to this more permanent form of activism, people have exchanged the Sharpies that Bleuel initially suggested for permanent ink.
Semicolon tattoos are cropping up everywhere: on wrists, behind ears, above ankle bones, and more. And with them, an outpouring of heartfelt stories, grassroots tattoo-a-thons, and even a fully devoted charity organization called The Semicolon Tattoo Project (TSTP) have followed.
“In a society that often tries to hide mental health issues, we want to push back and show that the more we talk about it, the more people get help,” says TSTP.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s 2014 Behavioral Health Barometer, over 13 million Americans struggled with a serious mental illness, 9.3 million seriously thought about committing suicide, and 17.3 million were dependent on alcohol in 2013.
Even more alarming, though, is the fact that nearly thirty-two percent of people diagnosed with a serious mental illness did not receive treatment in that same year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, many don’t seek proper diagnosis and help because of the stigma attached to this kind of illness.
And that’s exactly what the semicolon tattoo is working to change.
Just as the mark is a sign for readers to pause before continuing on with a sentence, participants have embraced the symbol as a reminder that their story isn’t over yet—and that they should tell it.
Look at the TSTP Facebook page and you’ll find countless people sharing tales of survival and struggle. These brave, honest accounts have started to bring a community together and endow members with the kind of pride that is capable of breaking down stigma.
What’s more, the tattoo has encouraged people to demand recognition for and discussion about illnesses that often skate by under the radar because they are invisible.
Ink has always been a conversation starter, and the semicolon emblem is no different. It’s an opportunity for survivors, those who battle every day, and even supporters to talk to those unacquainted with mental health issues. And as TSTP points out, “The more we talk about it, the more people get the help they need when they need it.”
So, in an age when many of us spend more time tweeting than talking, let alone doing, the semicolon tattoo might just be the most beautiful thing we’ve learned about in a long time (and, yes, we would believe this even if we weren’t such devout grammarians).
If you want to be part of the movement but don’t want to get a tattoo, why not start by sharing this story via your social media channels?
Stephanie Katz is a San Francisco–based writer who, contrary to the way it may seem, won’t correct your grammar over beers, coffees, or any other normal life interaction. She tells stories about health, history, travel, and more, and can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.