This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Some people hit the tattoo shop to commemorate milestones, others to celebrate people or pets they love, and some as a permanent souvenir of travels.
Increasingly though, people are getting mental health tattoos, inked reminders of challenges overcome, and hope to be found.
Dr. Ketetha Olengue, a psychiatry resident at Stanford, and founder of Developing Doc, a coaching program for medical students, has a tattoo of a semicolon on her wrist.
She was struggling with depression during medical school, and coming to realize how profoundly essential mental health was, Olengue told TODAY health. Seeing a friend try to hurt herself “showed me that we really need to be there for each other and need to not brush these things under the table, because they're just such a real part of life,” she said.
As she faced her own depression, “it flabbergasted me how so many people can have such a shared experience and so many people are going through it as if they were the first people doing it.”
“I did become very sad and had some dark thoughts,” said Olengue, but she sought help and received it, so “it didn't last long. At the end of the day I want to live, I do think I'm worthy of having a life, and I think I have something to contribute to the world.”
She had a tattoo already, one that featured a line from the Hippocratic oath. “And I thought, you know, I want another tattoo. I looked at my wrist and during my dark thoughts I kind of had been looking at my wrist and I always love visual reminders of what's important to you.”
She liked the idea of a tattoo that read "Be kind to yourself," but learned about the anti-suicide initiative Project Semicolon. “I just thought it was so beautiful,” she said. “The quote is that it’s your choice whether to end your story in a period or in a semicolon and see what's coming up next.”
Olengue put a semicolon on her wrist, and although it was covered by her Apple watch at first, during the last year — one difficult for so many others — she’s skipped the watch so she could see the tattoo. “I just love to look down and see that,” she said. “It reminds me of the situation in which I called for help.”
It reminds her, too, “that I have power over my situation. It gives me strength.”
For Erin Riedel, a psychotherapist in private practice in Louisville, Kentucky, a tattoo on her left forearm that reads, "You are a body of work" — a lyric from the Mynabirds song — was a healing experience following a difficult chapter of her life that included divorce, depression and anxiety.
“I was having a really hard time coming to terms with mistakes I had made and figuring out what the next chapter of my life was going to look like,” she said.
“I love this whole song because it's about the possibility of change, the idea that we can always find another direction when we're feeling stuck,” Riedel said.
The full lyrics, “You are a body of work — edit it," spoke to her as someone who loves to read and write. “I was very taken with the idea of my life being a body of work, a huge collection of experiences; it helps me take a wider perspective,” she said. “And the instruction to ‘edit it,’ even though I didn't include that part in the tattoo, reminds me to evaluate and make changes when needed, to get rid of the stuff that doesn't work.”
The tattoo was an aspirational message when she first put it on her body, Riedel said, something she wanted to believe. “Now I absolutely believe in the truth of it,” she said. “I'm glad I have it as a reminder of what I'm capable of overcoming.”
I'm glad I have it as a reminder of what I'm capable of overcoming.
A nine-year cancer survivor in Knoxville, Tennessee, Michael Holtz sees his collection of tattoos as markers of his cancer journey. He has a semicolon tattoo as well — with a twist: “I had rectal cancer and my rectum was removed because of the size of the tumor, thus I have a semicolon,” he said of the mental health tattoo that is also an ironic symbol of his now-partial colon. Among the other tattoos is the word eucharisteo, the Greek word for gratitude, on his left pec. That piece was inspired after reading the book “One Thousand Gifts,” he said. “Discovering the importance of expressing gratitude even when life sucks was life changing.”
His next tattoo, marking his 10th year of survivorship next spring, will be the phrase “Carry the fire” from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
From a Superman shield to a giant raven attempting to steal a pocket watch set at 5 o’clock, the tattoos “have all helped me mark something important in my life and are a testament to resilience, determination and gratitude,” he said.
In a culture that emphasizes being up, and happy all the time, it’s very easy to avoid thinking about and addressing painful things, Olengue said.
Tattoos like these can be a conversation starter, opening the door for others to acknowledge struggles. They can also normalize that ups and downs are part of life, she said. “We pathologize some real emotions that come with being human. (But) there's pain and there's suffering as much as there is happiness and joy.”
And a little ink can give people hope, she said. “ I don't feel sad when I look at my tattoo,” she said. “I feel human. I have a reminder of why mental health is important.”