THE first time I saw a young woman with a semicolon inked on her wrist, my instinctive dislike of tattoos made me look away. The second time I saw the mark, it was on a man in his twenties. When I saw it for a third time, I realised that this must be a trend, and I reached for the search engine on my smartphone. What I found took me by surprise.
To be honest, I have always been a bit fussy about the correct use of that punctuation mark. It has been with us since 1494, when the Italian printer Aldus Manutius established it (he also invented italic founts).
But it would compete to be the most misused punctuation mark, were not the apostrophe the outright champion. In a sentence, a semicolon is a pause that links two closely related or opposed clauses which have equal weight but not necessarily equal length. Some people can place a semicolon in a sentence with effortless accuracy and elegance; some cannot.
On human skin, a semicolon represents something distinctive and important. It is an indication that the person has been driven to the point at which he or she seriously considered suicide, but stepped back. A semicolon in a sentence marks a hiatus, but not the end. Just so a decision to endure, even though life seems intolerable.
The Semicolon Project was founded by a Christian woman, Amy Bleuel, from Wisconsin, in the United States. It is only two years old, but it has already gained considerable attention worldwide because of the part it is playing in removing stigma from mental illness. Its objective is to offer “hope and love for those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury”.
It is not in competition with Samaritans, or Papyrus (for prevention of suicide among young people), which offer immediate help on the end of a phone. Those superb charities emphasise the anonymity they offer to anyone needing to hear an understanding human voice.
In contrast, the Semicolon Project seeks openness and visibility in relation to all aspects of mental health, believing that this will encourage people to seek help. It encourages “a conversation embraced by churches and addressed with love”.
As part of that visibility, young people who have wrestled with depressive or suicidal tendencies are choosing to display this openly, with a sign that others will instantly recognise. The semicolon appears on clothing, jewellery, social media of all kinds, and, of course, tattoos.
There are three things that congregations can learn from the Semicolon Project. First, they can learn that young people respond to honesty and sincerity. This is true of mental health, but it is also true of the way we speak about faith and give a realistic assessment of what Christian commitment can and cannot bring to a human life.
Second, we need to be aware that depression is an illness that may have a recognisable cause, but can also strike randomly and cruelly, with no regard to religious belief.
And, third, the project’s mission statement may involve questionable grammar, but it is unsurpassable advice about the way in which we relate to teenagers who are in, formerly in, or just hanging around, our churches: “Stay strong; love endlessly; change lives.”
Suicide is the leading cause of young deaths in the UK. Anyone sporting a semicolon tattoo deserves our respect. Full stop.
Peter Graystone develops pioneering mission projects for the Church Army.
More information about the Semicolon Project is at: www.projectsemicolon.org.
Samaritans can be reached at any time on 08457 909090.
The Papyrus helpline, HOPELineUK, is 0800 068 4141.