The significance of a semicolon

ILLUSTRATION BY JON DECKER

BY CAELI CHESIN

Editor's note: Amy Bleuel, the founder of Project Semicolon, died March 24 at the age of 31. This article was written prior to Bleuel's death and has been updated to reflect the news of her passing. At the time of Bleuel's death, many quoted by the Washington Post said her death was a significant loss to the mental health community.

Kaytlin Killion, a soon-to-be college graduate, sat in SafeHouse Tattoo in Nashville, Tennessee on a Tuesday, anxiously waiting to get a semicolon tattoo she has wanted since she was 17 years old.

Alexia Hagicostas, a medical assistant, got a semicolon tattoo on a whim in a Long Island tattoo parlor to commemorate her aunt who died from suicide.

Tim Sharp, founder of The Happiness Institute and advocate of the positive psychology movement, sat in Bondi Ink tattoo parlor in Sydney, Australia on a Wednesday, after being inscribed with a semicolon on his wrist.

The tattooed semicolon isn’t just a trend. The mark holds great significance to many individuals from all around the world. It’s a message to keep going on in life — that their stories are not over.

For this story, Amherst Wire reached out on Instagram and followed up with interviews by telephone and email.

“To me, this semicolon has two meanings. One, to let others know they are not alone — that I've shared some of their feelings even if I haven't directly shared their experiences. Secondly, it is a symbol of my own story,” said Killion, who has made strides in healing from her depression over the past three years.

This summer, Killion will prepare to move to Melbourne, Fla., for an internship with To Write Love On Her Arms. This nonprofit movement is dedicated to finding hope and help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.

"There have been too many days to count that I've wanted to be my last and this semicolon means that I'm choosing to continue,” said Killion.

The tattoo trend was formed under Project Semicolon, a movement used to raise awareness about suicide, self-harm, addiction and depression. The phrase behind the project, as stated on the website, is that “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.” Many individuals, like Killion, will post under the hashtag #ProjectSemicolon to bring awareness of these issues to their own social circles.

“On a day-to-day basis, it prompts me to pause and breathe and take stock each and every time I feel stressed or upset,” said Sharp. “And finally, it reminds me that I’m part of a community, that I’m not alone, and that’s something we all need to remember.”

According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, nearly 38,000 Americans commit suicide each year. In 2015, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated that suicide was the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds and second for 24 to 35-year-olds.

According to Rutgers University Behavioral Healthcare, about two-thirds of people who complete suicide are depressed at the time of their deaths, making undiagnosed or untreated depression the leading cause of suicide.

However, people's stories cannot be revealed in numbers.

In a book co-written by Sharp, "Transformation: Turning Tragedy into Triumph," several writers tell about their individual experiences with recovery. Sharp tells his own story of going to great extents to hide his depression and using alcohol to cope.

“Everyone’s different and I’d be loath to give advice to someone I don’t know," Sharp said. "That being said, for anyone experiencing anything similar to what I went through, I’d try to help them see that it’s okay not to be okay all the time; it’s not weak to speak."

“There are people willing and able to help; you’re not alone and things can get better,” he added.

The stories of Killion, Sharp and Hagicostas aren’t just calculations to be put into a percentage, which is symbolized by their semicolon tattoos. They choose to recognize the dangers of depression, suicide and other mental illnesses to move forward themselves, as well as to help others who are struggling.

Project Semicolon, a global non-profit movement, was founded in 2013 when Amy Bleuel took to the internet to ask those who have struggled or who have lost a loved one to mental illness to draw a semicolon on their wrist. She asked them to post a picture to social media using the hashtag #ProjectSemicolon and #SemicolonProject416. The 416 stands for the April 14, 2014, the date the project was first launched.

Bleuel struggled with mental illness herself. She lost her father to suicide after years of depression. She started the project to honor her father and to break down the stigmas associated with mental illness.

Last month, Bleuel passed away at the age of 31. According to the Washington Post, Bleuel lived in Green Bay, Wisc. with her husband at the time of her death. Her death notice does not indicate a cause of death, the Post reported, but said she is in Heaven with her father.

During her life, Bleuel created a website where over 1,000 stories have been shared. Through the campaign, Bleuel continued to share her own story to keep the conversation going.

On Sept. 5, 2017, the book "Project Semicolon: Your Story Isn’t Over" will be released, containing stories from Bleuel and other select submissions.

Project Semicolon encourages people to get involved in any way they can — from making a YouTube video, to writing a blog post, to starting a local chapter or just becoming more educated on mental illness.

Email Caeli at mchesin@umass.edu or follow her on Twitter @caeli_chesin.

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