When the weight and isolation of Jade Lassell’s mental illnesses were too much for her to bear, she went down almost every dark path possible.
She drank. She overdosed. She got more than 60 tattoos — they allowed her to feel the pain of cutting, yet be creative and avoid the scars.
About two months ago she got her 67th tattoo on her right hand, but this time for a different reason. The different colored paint splotches represent different mental illnesses. The semicolon in the center shows that Lassell’s life is not over. When she shakes people’s hands, she wants them to ask about it. And then she tells them about the growing Project Semicolon movement.
The nonprofit organization offers a simple message for people struggling with mental illness: Keep going. Like the semicolon in a sentence, it signals a continuation, not an end.
“I hope that one person that’s at the edge looks up and sees my hand, and I hope that’s enough to make them step back and think, ‘My story isn’t over and I’m not alone,’” said Lassell, 27, of Warsaw, Mo.
As this week marks National Suicide Prevention Week, thousands of supporters across the country have gotten a semicolon tattooed on their wrists to show solidarity to Project Semicolon’s cause.
Amy Bleuel started Project Semicolon as an online community in April 2013 to honor her father, who committed suicide, as well as to help others who, like her, have struggled with mental illness, depression and thoughts of suicide. On her website, she asked people to draw semicolons on their wrists and then post photos on social media.
The concept quickly inspired many to show support in a more permanent way: with a tattoo. There are now hundreds of thousands of photos of semicolon tattoos on Instagram.
Bleuel chose a semicolon because of its simple, yet powerful meaning. And both men and women can relate to it.
“I’m hoping to start a conversation that doesn’t stop,” Bleuel said in a phone call from her home in Green Bay, Wis.
Her project got a boost this summer when 20-year-old Heather Parrie of Kansas City wrote an essay for The Huffington Post about her semicolon tattoo and her struggles with depression and anxiety.
Parrie, a student at University of Missouri, wrote that “there’s no question” the stigma of mental illness harmed her GPA, relationships with friends and involvement on campus. But she’s lucky to have a supportive family and a good group of friends.
“So I will show my tattoo proudly and champion for the people who cannot champion for themselves,” she wrote. “Every day that I say no to the dark thoughts depression tries to tangle my mind with, I am winning a battle that society has not made easy to win.”
About 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — or 43.7 million people — experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for people ages 18 to 44.
Six months ago, Lassell, an artist, created her own local semicolon Facebook page, writing posts and providing encouraging advice and quotes. She wanted the page to be a forum for both those who wanted to openly talk about their experiences and those who want to read about people like them.
And there’s no obligation to get a semicolon tattoo, Lassell said. She knows people who draw it on their wrist instead. The purpose isn’t for people to get a tattoo; it’s for people to accept themselves.
“It’s OK to be me,” she said. “That’s the whole point. It’s OK to be me.”
Brandon Province, who frequently visits the Facebook page, said Project Semicolon is as much for those not educated about mental illnesses as it is for those living with it. Province, 30, of Columbia was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder and said people have told him to “just get over it.”
“It makes people aware. It’s not a small thing,” he said. “All people are going through it in someway. It’s opening eyes that this isn’t going away.”
Lassell said she realizes that mental illness is still a “silent fight.” She hopes Project Semicolon puts more of a spotlight on the stigma. For now, she’s hoping to shake someone’s hand and change a life.
“This has brought out people who are OK with coming into the light and putting their hands up,” Lassell said. “Other people see that and are inspired. The semicolon is nothing but a doorway.”
TO LEARN MORE
Read about Project Semicolon and its message at projectsemicolon.org
TO GET HELP
▪ National Alliance of Mental Health — Kansas City: 816-931-0030
▪ Johnson County Mental Health Center: 913-831-2550
▪ Mental Health America of the Heartland: 913-281-2221 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)