You may have seen tattoos or Pinterest posts or FB posts with a semicolon and never quite known why it was there. The semicolon ; has become a symbol for suicide awareness, largely propagated by Project Semicolon. “Your story is not over.” I think this is brilliant. If you Google image search for semicolon, I don’t even know how many images pop up with inspiring quotes, or tattoos clearly used as inspiration or remembrance. A lot of people play with it and write “warr;or” or “l;fe.” The ; is such a good pick for this because suicide attempts (often just referred to as suicide even if it is incomplete) are like breaks in the fabric of your story, but then you have the chance to pick yourself back up and start another related sentence. I was broken; I was healed.
Suicide is a taboo subject, still, even though the statistics are staggering. I think more veterans die to suicide than soldiers die in combat. This is unacceptable. PTSD, depression, bipolar, what have you, are all treatable. Every single disorder. If only people got the care they needed and weren’t afraid to ask for help. Another issue many people run into is funding care. My own therapy is expensive because the therapist who I really get along with is out of network. I know plenty of people who just went without therapy and medication because they couldn’t afford to go to the doctor. Friends in Britain complain constantly that the NHS is slow and impossible to navigate successfully. Getting into a DBT program in the UK or America can take up to 6 months, sometimes longer. I honestly don’t understand. These issues are like heart disease or congenital thyroid issues or a broken leg: they’re just ailments that need treatment, we need not ascribe any other valuation to them. But instead of equating mental health issues with physical issues, the vast majority of the world says “it’s all in your head,” “you’re crazy,” “nothing can help you,” or “shouldn’t you be in a hospital?” The world says, “it’s demons in your head,” “you’re touched,” or “that’s just the way you are.”
I very frequently wear a semicolon tee shirt, that I love. I also always have on a little silver bracelet with a hand stamped semicolon. I’m actually considering it as my next tattoo. It means so much to me to be supported by friends and family through my severe depressions and most recent suicide attempt. I want to acknowledge that although that was a big moment in my life, it was not the end and I am carrying on. But I am one of the lucky ones. I could have just as easily died on that hospital floor if my neck had broken any differently or been paralyzed by my broken back. I also have the ability to afford good health insurance, which kept my family from needing to dole out an excessive amount of money to pay for my hospital bill. I can afford the meds and therapy that I need. And I am so grateful. In another situation I would likely be homeless or dead, but definitely untreated.
I have always been pretty good at advocating for myself. I think that’s part of why I am not really afraid to share my story or to ask for help when I need it. (I was hospitalized 6 times in the last 4 years, usually at my own admission of needing help.) But it can still backfire. Like with the ladies who I was trying to work with a few years ago who yelled at me about “just getting out of a mental hospital.” I mean, come on. We all know (at least I hope we all know??) that a psych ward is not the same as the cultural concept of the “mental hospital.” It’s just a place, granted a locked place, where people receive treatment for illnesses. I don’t see how this affords any room for judgment, to be honest. You don’t back away and look askance at someone coming out of the cancer ward, but people do when you’re coming out of a psych ward.
Mental health awareness is definitely on the rise. Even in the last 10 years the visibility of mental health awareness campaigns has increased noticeably. I’m sure most people could name a few organizations that help in this area. (To Write Love on Her Arms, Project Semicolon, Bring Change 2 Mind, #End the Stigma, etc.) Mental health education is becoming more prevalent as well. If we start teaching kids about mental health the same way we do physical health, they will be much more equipped to deal with it themselves, either personally or with a friend or family member. This has already begun.
I know the conversation is ongoing: “What if we treated mental illness like the a physical ailment?” Here’s the thing: it is physical. First, “mental” illnesses usually come with tons of physical side effects. When I’m sort of manic or going a little nuts, I can get akathesia, which basically means I feel like I want to scratch all the skin off of my body because everything inside of me is jiggling and wants to escape. When I’m depressed I get aches, pains, stomach issues, appetite issues, headaches, sleep disturbances, etc. And more to the point, absolutely everything about “mental” illness comes from physiological issues in the brain, be it circuitry or neurochemistry. Different parts of the brain actually differ in size in people with bipolar, PTSD, BPD, or depression from healthy people. These are PHYSICAL issues, we just don’t think about them that way. We can’t see a chemical imbalance or a faulty circuit (yet) like we can see a broken bone, so we don’t process it the same way. Cause and effect. Humans like explanations. Believing in something you can’t see can be difficult, but if we educate ourselves and others, this shift from “mental” to “physical” might happen. Already there is a debate in the field of psychology about “neurological” vs “psychological” disorders (for instance Huntington’s vs bipolar), with the distinction that one presents more physical symptoms than emotional, though most neurological disorders also have emotional components. People with Parkinson’s very often suffer from co-morbid depression. The lines are blurred and drawing lines limits us.
Which brings me back to the semicolon. I am proof that life goes on after a suicide attempt. That people can be accepting and supportive. That getting help is not a weakness, but a strength. That sometimes an end can be a beginning.
I have survived for 32 years despite my best efforts. Consequently, I talk about mental health a lot because it affects me every day. I talk about it with my therapists, my friends, my family, the Internet. I talk about my scars from self-harm, my suicide attempts, my battle with addiction, the miscarriages I had, and the continuing, day-to-day frustrations of living with my disorders. I also volunteer as a peer support moderator in a peer-led 24/7 mental health chatroom, so I talk about other people’s mental health too, often when they are in crisis. Online chat rooms have been incredibly helpful to me over the years because sometimes I just want to go where people understand me, where I could vent about my mood swings and suicidal thoughts without being judged or called crazy.