Three years ago, I was sitting in my dorm room gasping for air. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. My heart was practically beating out of my chest, and I was filled with a sense of impending doom as my freshly decorated walls threatened to close in on me. I was three days into college—I could tell something was wrong. I had never felt this way before. After a brisk walk to the counseling center, I realized what I was experiencing was an anxiety attack. I chalked it up to a one-time thing, but unfortunately, it wasn’t.
I didn’t feel like myself. It was hard for me to feel happy and connect with the things I used to love. Everything seemed pointless. I remember reading a comment on Instagram that said, “Depression makes you think that you’ve been looking at the world through rose-colored glasses all your life, and now you’ve finally taken them off,” and thinking, That’s exactly how I feel. I knew this new pessimistic lens wasn’t reality, but it felt pretty damn real.
When I started to feel better (thanks to therapy, medication, and a devotion to self-care practices), I was relieved but also terrified. It constantly felt like I was on a slippery slope. I had slipped into that dark place once. How could I be certain it wouldn’t happen again? I couldn’t be. And while I had made my way out once, the idea of fighting through all of that again scared me. I wanted to make a statement to myself, something that said no matter what, I would be okay. So I decided to get a tattoo.
The actual experience of getting the tattoo worked wonders for my mental health (and not just because of the adrenaline and endorphin rush). The act of putting something permanent on my body as assurance I would always take care of myself was pretty powerful. Plus, I’m a huge wimp when it comes to needles—in fact, my family placed bets on whether I’d actually come home with a tat—so I really demonstrated my commitment to myself and my well-being that day. And once I had a permanent symbol of my strength on my body, that ominous slippery slope of depression seemed a lot less intimidating.
New York City psychologist Heather Silvestri agrees that mental health-related tattoos can make a difference in a person’s well-being. “One of the most noxious aspects of mental illness and psychological suffering is that it often, and at least initially, makes people feel out of control and passive. A mental health-related tattoo can serve to flip the equation because you are affirmatively engaging your own psychological struggle,” she explains. Not only that, but they can be helpful down the road. “A benefit of these tattoos is that the longer out people get from turning a corner in their recovery, the more motivation to be healthy can flag. Mental health-related tattoos are potent reminders, not only of what you’ve been through but also of your own power and what you’re aspiring to,” Silvestri explains.
I’ve definitely found that to be the case with mine. My tattoo always serves as a reminder, but what it suggests depends on my mood. It’s a small image of two mountains on my left wrist. I settled on mountains because they’re so versatile, and there are a couple of quotes about them that I love, like “just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and you’ll look back, and you’ve climbed a mountain.” If I’m having a particularly good day, I’ll look at it and think, wow, I’m a certified badass for overcoming that. If it’s a bad day, my tattoo is a reminder that I can handle it. It’s a symbol of the fact that I made it through a really hard time. If I could do that, I can do anything.
The wrist placement has also proved to be pretty important. I can easily glance at it whenever I need a quick dose of inspiration. Sometimes, I won’t even be looking for it, but seeing the mountain symbols as I go about my day makes me feel an instant surge of pride and self-love. Psychotherapist Emily Roberts agrees that the placement of a visual reminder is key to its power. She explains, “The key in any visual representation is you need to see it as a reminder. Having a piece of jewelry on your hand, something you look at hundreds of times each day, depending on how much you get on your phone or computer, can subconsciously reinforce the meaning behind the band or beads. Tattoos can have a similar effect if one sees the art daily.”
I’m definitely not the only one who’s gotten inked in the name of mental health. In fact, there’s an entire movement called Project Semicolon where people get semicolon tattoos as a symbol of hope in the face of depression and suicide. Instead of a period, which represents an ending, the semicolon represents the fact that the person’s story isn’t over. In 2017, Selena Gomez got the powerful symbol tattooed on her wrist with two members of the 13 Reasons Why cast to raise awareness about suicide prevention and depression, which she’s struggled with in the past.
Like those involved in the movement, I use my tattoo to raise awareness. I’m big on ending the stigma surrounding mental illness, in whatever ways I can. It’s not something I’m ashamed to talk about, and my tattoo helps me to do just that. It serves as a great conversation starter—and not just when guys ask me about it at bars. It’s a way to bring up what I’ve been through, and a perfect way to ease into the conversation about mental health. Silvestri notes that for a lot of people, tattoos can be a great way to reduce stigma because “the public nature of a tattoo helps to counter any shame and stigma that may have accrued to your mental health struggle.” I’ve experienced that phenomenon firsthand. I countered the stigma that I felt about experiencing anxiety and depression by deciding to permanently document the journey on my body. Now it’s been almost two years since I got my tattoo, and I’ve never once regretted it.
If you’re not quite ready to go under the needle, check out the lower-stakes ways to improve your mental health.