Stigma Kills: On Amy Bleuel, Project Semicolon, and the Complex Nature of Mental Health Activism

Today is World Bipolar Day. As an actual, real, live human being living with Bipolar Affective Disorder, I had a post planned for today around my experiences with being diagnosed, accepting that diagnosis for myself, explaining it to friends and family, and, ultimately, sharing it with you beautiful humans that actually take time out of your day to read the things I write.

This is definitely not the personal, occasionally lighthearted post I had initially planned. Because yesterday, news broke that impacts the entire mental health community. Yesterday, we learned that Amy Bleuel, founder of Project Semicolon, had lost her life to suicide. To say this was an unexpected loss is an understatement. While I did not know Amy personally, I knew her work very well and have followed her since the semicolon went viral in 2013.

Before I was blogging. Before I was diagnosed. Before I was in regular therapy. Back when I sat quietly with my depression determined to “push through.” Back when I passively thought about suicide at least once a day. Back when I was tongue tied by stigma and chained in silence. Back when I felt the need to be “stronger”, to be “better”, to be “normal.”

Though it was only 4 years ago, it feels like a lifetime. In the time that’s passed since, most of my life has flipped so many times, you’d think it was a gymnast. But 4 years ago, I saw semicolons starting to float around my facebook timeline, with increasing prevalence. Intrigued, I clicked on one of the links and read about this amazing person, Amy, who had been suicidally depressed, and had nearly died by suicide more than once. This wonderful human, about my age, was reaching out to the world and spreading hope through a simple piece of punctuation. And I admired her. I was inspired by her. I hoped to get a semicolon tattoo myself one day.

Though I remained largely silent myself, still needing to swing some more swords in my own battle against mental illness and the stigma associated with it, I was encouraged to see Amy and people like her, out there, giving hope to others. The whole mental health world was impacted by Amy’s work.

She was viewed as “inspiring”, “brave”, a “hero”, and a “life saver” (these are all terms you’ll find describing her in various articles and interviews). And she was all of these things. But she was so much more.

Our society likes tie subjects and people up in neat, pretty, easy to accept, gift wrapped boxes. But life is not neat and aesthetically pleasing, and life with mental illness is anything but simple. Living with mental health issues is challenging, confusing, and complex. And, while society said, “Look at this amazing woman who survived suicide, overcame depression, and is now inspiring others!”, Amy was still engaged in a battle for her life. And she lost that battle last week. But HOW could someone so well-known for suicide prevention die by suicide?! I’ve seen that question, in various forms, multiple times over the past 24 hours. And the answer, in my opinion, is the same as it always is when someone loses the fight against depression: STIGMA.

We have not beaten stigma. People are still afraid to speak up, to reach out. Stigma is complex. It’s deep. It’s layers of suckage. Stigma encompasses everything from fear of the homeless man talking about the CIA by the subway entrance to embarrassment when you try to explain why a loved one is in the hospital. From unwillingness to accept that depression is a real struggle to complete empathy for people with “normal” mental health struggles like depression and anxiety, but silence when it comes to people experiencing psychosis. From posting on social media to “stop being lazy” or “there’s a pill for that” to supporting loved ones for what’s deemed an “acceptable” time frame of recovery, and then growing impatient and blaming them for their illness. Stigma is all of these things. Stigma is also looking at someone who is speaking out against stigma and labeling them “inspirational” people who have “overcome” and are now working to “help” others. Can you imagine how much pressure that would put on someone who is struggling?

But that’s the box that our society deems suitable for public consumption of mental illness. The only way we want large scale conversations on stigma is when they are delivered in that meticulously cultivated package labeled “inspiring.” The only way we accept a discussion on mental illness is if it comes from a person so recovered from their tumultuous past that they can now “pass” in the broader society as “not crazy.” Someone high functioning. Someone who can be redefined as a victor.

No one wants to watch that Ted Talk on living with Bipolar Affective Disorder and think “that person spends every day working to manage his mood with medication and coping skills”, instead, the preferred lens is, “Wow! He got better!” You don’t want to read a book about someone living with Schizophrenia and think “This person works hard everyday to reality-check and stay present and ignore or integrate the voices they hear.” You want to think, “Wow! This person is cured! And what a thing to have lived through! I’m so happy she got through it.” And you don’t want to look at the smiling, short haired woman speaking with confidence and eloquence about her struggles with depression and think, “She’s still battling for her life every single day.” You want to think, “Hey! She’s all better and now she’s helping others! That’s incredible!”

There’s this idea we all like to hold that those who speak out and share their stories with honesty and bravery are “better.” That they have mastered their own mental illness and their role now is to support and inspire others to do the same. This is deadly. Think of how hard it would be to reach out for help for suicidal thoughts if you were known as a person at the forefront of the suicide prevention movement. Imagine how difficult it would be to not only tell your close friends and family that you were going to a hospital because you were unsure you’d be able to keep yourself safe, but also to have to make some sort of press release through your non-profit organization, an organization aimed at fighting suicide. Imagine the position in which Amy found herself. I can’t speak to her thoughts, obviously, but I can envision how hard I would find it to reach out and open up to someone about the depth of my despair were I in her position.

In life, Amy was featured on MTV, ABC, People, BuzzFeed, and many other stations and sites. When her semicolon idea went viral, everyone wanted to interview her. In death, her local news sources have articles and mental health publications have articles, but beyond that, the silence is overwhelming. Because no one wants to look at the truth behind all these “amazing” public figures at the forefront of the mental health discussion in this country: each and every one of the people speaking out and sharing their personal struggles is still living with mental illness. Every single one of those people you like to deem “inspirational” are battling their illness every day. And sometimes, people lose that battle. That Amy lost her battle does not and cannot invalidate her fight, or the contributions of hope and encouragement she gave all of us. In fact, I believe that the fact she was doing such amazing things while engulfed in her own immense struggles adds to the impressiveness of her work. Much like a soldier awarded the Metal of Honor posthumously, her death does not negate her courage; rather, her death draws a circle around her bravery and dedication. 

Fuck Stigma.

I’m going to be completely honest with you right now: I’m still fighting my own battles every single day; I’m just hoping to help a few other people along the way.

To Amy: you DID inspire, you DID shift perceptions, you DID amazing things. You did all this while battling for yourself. You did all this while struggling every day. THAT’S why you inspired me. You will be missed. Rest in Peace.


5 thoughts on “Stigma Kills: On Amy Bleuel, Project Semicolon, and the Complex Nature of Mental Health Activism

  1. You’re right on the money with this post. It doesn’t help to brush these people’s mental health under the carpet. Yes they’re fighting stigma, but they’re not magically cured and that’s OK.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! And I think society needs to understand that we can be “inspiring” without being cured. That’s the main issue – we only want to hear from people who are “better” and “high functioning” – when, of we REALLY want to fight stigma, we have to take a good, hard look at the depths of mental illness and treat the experiences of the psychotic person with the same compassion we treat the experiences of the mildly depressed person – and everything in between. Mental health matters. This conversation matters. Fighting stigma matters. But society needs to hear us at our “best” and our “worst”, or else nothing will ever truly change.

      Liked by 1 person

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