It began as one person honoring her parent. Today, Project Semicolon is a viral phenomenon, challenging mental illness stereotypes and spreading a message of hope and encouragement to all those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.
Why a semicolon? “It represents continuance in your story,” said Project Semicolon president Amy Bleuel, who founded the faith-based nonprofit in 2013 after losing her father to suicide. “An author uses a semicolon when they choose to continue a sentence. You are the author, the sentence is your life and you are choosing to continue.”
Visit social media using #projectsemicolon, #semicolonproject and #hopeisalive15, and you’ll witness the organization’s global reach. Thousands of photos of semicolon tattoos and art are shared, along with personal stories, music, videos, and messages of hope and love in multiple languages. The result is a powerful sense of community and possibility.
Among those shared stories is Bleuel’s own. The 30-year-old artist has, in her words, “been through it all” — emotional and physical abuse, mental illness, multiple suicide attempts, rape, self-harm and addiction. She outlines this history in her blog, “A Story of Hope in the Midst of Despair.”
She knows from hard experience that “so many people in the darkness don’t feel loved, they don’t feel heard — they just feel alone. And they feel that the only way out is suicide.”
She created Project Semicolon as a way to share hope with those who are struggling and to honor her father, whose suicide occurred when she was 18. “And one of the big things about honoring my father was displaying the love that he portrayed to the world and to his family.”
The response to her project, Bleuel said, has been overwhelming. Most rewarding is hearing from those who’ve absorbed Project Semicolon’s message: “Don’t let your story end.” Bleuel said, “I’ve been reading a lot [of responses] like ‘this is divine intervention that I came across your project because 24 hours ago I planned to end my life.’”
Making the Case for Faith
The feedback hasn’t all been positive, however. Some take exception to the group’s identification of itself as faith-based. Bleuel says she realizes she is probably missing out on connecting with some people because of the emphasis but explains that she can’t compartmentalize her religious beliefs, which have been instrumental in helping her heal. “I’m not going to change who I am.”
Bleuel addresses the issue on the organization’s website, under the title “Why Faith-Based?” Her answer: “When the foundation of this project was created, those involved reflected on what got them to where they are today. The answer was clear that it was the love of Christ. As we set forth in the project, we committed to loving with a Christ-like love those who are struggling,” she said. “We inspire others through the very thing that brought us to continuance in our own stories. This by no means excludes any other beliefs or religions, as we accept them all. For we are all in this together.”
Escaping From the Pain
In addition to her religious beliefs, Bleuel also found inspiration in her life from an important mentor, Bob Lenz, an inspirational youth speaker and author. “He stood by my side for eight years, in spite of anything I said to him or how many times I told him I was going to take my life. He would just keep on staying by my side and encouraging me, telling me I couldn’t end it, my story wasn’t over, I had things to do.”
She also credits her husband with helping her get from where she once was to where she is. “I remember asking him when we first started dating, ‘When are you going to leave me like everyone else?’ And he said, ‘I’m not going to leave you.’ Despite how many trials we’ve gone through, he won’t walk away. And that’s amazing to me.” It was support that meant “someone believed in me when I couldn’t believe in myself.” The couple recently celebrated their first anniversary.
Despite the multiple suicide attempts in her past, she said, “I never really wanted to die. I just wanted to escape from the pain. And I found that escape here on earth in the people I found.”
It’s a support system she hopes to replicate for others in some small measure through Project Semicolon. “People need that encouragement in their life. They need to know that regardless of whatever they thought, or regardless of maybe what their parents, or their siblings, or their aunts or uncles, or even friends or teachers have said to them … they need to know that they’re worth it.”
For those attempting to be more supportive to a friend or loved one who is suffering, Bleuel has this advice: “Educate yourself. You need to understand the differences between major depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia or whatever they are dealing with. You can start to understand what the triggers are and learn ways to help them through the difficult times when you see them coming. And listen. Listen with an open mind.”
Keeping the Conversation Going
Although the nonprofit is two years old, Project Semicolon’s profile recently soared. Bleuel can’t pinpoint what gave the group such traction but believes it relates to several bloggers who helped spread the word about the organization. Suddenly, international media outlets were calling, followed soon after by many in the U.S. “It was kind of interesting how that worked,” she said.
The organization is still building its core team and planning more outreach, public speaking and events, as well as more blogs and sharing of stories on its website and through social media. Those who want to get involved can become part of a Project Semicolon Street Team, which takes the organization’s message to the streets, Bleuel said. They can also donate to the non-profit organization through the website if they wish.
All of the efforts ultimately aim at getting people past the stigma that so often accompanies mental health issues. “So much is a taboo subject that we don’t want to talk about,” Bleuel said. “We want to redefine the conversation, to open up doors, to allow people to see their purpose, to see that they are loved, to raise awareness, to keep those conversations going, and eventually lower the suicide rate in America.”