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Semicolon tattoos surge in solidarity for those with mental illness


Marty Keltz gave himself a special gift last week to mark his 71 birthday. He got his first tattoo, a black semicolon inked on the inside of his right wrist.

Keltz, an Emmy Award-winning producer who lives in Toronto, has dealt with depression most of his life. With his new tattoo, he’s joined a growing movement that has adopted the semicolon as a symbol of solidarity and awareness among people struggling with their mental health and others who support them.

“The worst thing about depression or any other kind of mental illness is isolation, that feeling of being removed from the rest of the world,” says Keltz.

“I think this (movement) is really important.”

Keltz, known for hit children’s television series The Magic School Bus and Goosebumps, was inspired by the number of educators who started sharing their personal stories about dealing with mental illness on blogs and Twitter.

They earmarked July 14 — Keltz’s birthday — as the day to celebrate the symbol using the hashtag #semicolonEDU. That prompted Keltz to get his tattoo a day earlier, just in time to participate.

He says his decision to put the tattoo in a visible spot and to start speaking about his own experience was largely driven by his professional work as co-founder of the educational project CritterKin, which promotes emotional literacy and empathy in kids.

The semicolon craze, which began with people drawing the symbol on themselves in ink and soon exploded into tattoos on arms, ankles, necks and behind ears, originated with Amy Bleuel of Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Bleuel, 29, founded the non-profit Project Semicolon in 2013, a decade after losing her father to suicide and in the wake of her own years of despair and self-injury, to try and provide hope and support for people with mental illness.

“A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to,” explains the website for her faith-based movement. “The author is you and the sentence is your life.”

Seeing the message take off on social media and zillions of images posted of the same semicolon tattoo she has on her arm “brings me comfort and hope and is a reminder of what I’m trying to do out there,” Bleuel said in an interview.

While awareness is important, some in the field caution that it shouldn’t overshadow the need to advocate for services, housing and other supports for people with mental illness.

“I know some people would get comfort from a tattoo,” says Lucy Costa, an advocate with the empowerment council, representing the voice of clients at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

But “feel-good campaigns” can only go so far and don’t help address the structural changes that are still needed, she adds.

But Jayson Pham of Toronto notes the whole point of the semicolon is to keep the conversation going around mental health, including what’s needed to help the one in five Canadians coping with mental illness.

Pham, 20, a social work student at Carleton University in Ottawa, got a semicolon tattooed on his left wrist last March.

“When I look at it, it reminds me that I am strong, that I am the author of my own story,” says Pham, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following a car accident, and later severe depression. He is now a youth mental health advocate.

“It reminds me of how far I have come.”

TORONTO STAR | LIFE | HEALTH_WELLNESS

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