The Stigma of Mental Illness - Part 1

The word stigma originates “from the Latin stigmat-, mark, brand,” and “from Greek stizein to tattoo.” This word describes a permanent mark affixed upon the human body, and we humans, traditionally, have a fear what such a mark can portend.


The Mark of Cain, the branding of a slave, a drunk, or a prostitute, the Roman branding of fugitives, the Puritanical Scarlet Letter. We even have a prophecy in the book of Revelation that only those who bare the Mark of the Beast will be permitted to engage in commerce.

16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

Revelation 13:16-17 King James Version (KJV)

Announcing that in the end times, the stigma of a brand will turn into a positive for those who on the evil side with the Devil, and not having a brand will mark you on the good side with God. It is impossible to escape the deep-rooted, human belief that a permanent mark indicates someone, or something to stay away from.

Upon hearing the word today, you feel the impulse to rear back and guard yourself; lest you receive a similar brand. This fear is so strong that some people have called me and said, “Thank you for talking about this; it is important that we talk more about it today.”

In the back of my mind, I ask: “What is the ‘it’ they are referring to”?

It is a sign of progress that even though most people still do not feel comfortable saying the words mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and suicide; at least a conversation can happen. Even if the __________________ disorder remains unsaid, that is far better than no one talking about mental illness at all.

This will be a multi-part series where I examine the history of stigma, how mental illness was stigmatized, and ways that you can help excise this blot on human wellness.

For now, I encourage you to donate to the Cure Stigma campaign, run by NAMI at:

What is Project Semicolon?

I could explain the misunderstood nature of the semicolon, but The Oatmeal does it so much better.

Project Semicolon is an organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide. Our work is based on the foundation and belief that suicide is preventable and everyone has a role to play in preventing suicide. Through raising public awareness, educating communities, and equipping every person with the right tools, we know we can save lives.”

Why use a semicolon as a logo for suicide prevention? Because a semicolon is where an author could have ended a sentence; instead choosing to continue the story.

The idea is that we are all authors of our lives; those that attempt suicide metaphorically attempt to put a period at the end of theirs.

I tried to put a period on my life a couple times; I did not succeed.

A few years ago, I saw someone with a tattoo of a semicolon on their wrist. I was unsure of what it symbolized, other than an affinity for generally-misunderstood punctuation. So I went up to this person and asked… I’m kidding, I Googled it.

That search led me to Project Semicolon and to a wealth of stories that mirrored mine. As a fan of tattoos, it was not long before I walked into Read Street Tattoo and asked for one on my wrist.

Yes, that is a Llama in tree pose. My sister painted it, and it’s the best Llama painting in the world.

Yes, that is a Llama in tree pose. My sister painted it, and it’s the best Llama painting in the world.

You may notice that my semicolon is not oriented correctly (this makes it an Arabic semicolon). That is mainly so the sweeping tail of the punctuation covers a scar on my wrist. I earned that scar due to stupidity; putting my hand through a window in anger.

What I have come to deeply appreciate about my tattoo is that some people will ask me about it, but others will see it and say, “me too,” or “my wife.”

Or I’ll trade a subtle head nod with someone waiting in line at the grocery store.

Despite the use of a semicolon as a moderate pause in speaking; it has generated a great deal of memorable conversations.

So now you know what a semicolon tattoo means. Someone may have made an attempt. Someone may know a friend or family member who tried to die by suicide. It means the story isn’t over.

Gordon tried to die by suicide; he survives.  - beautiful in style and placement. - beautiful in style and placement.