Gillette Community Rallies Around Tattoo To Fight Suicide's Stigma

Jan 8, 2016

Mike, Trish, and Ashley Simonson with their semicolon tattoos.
Credit Miles Bryan

Gillette mother Trish Simonson never wanted a tattoo. That changed when her son Kaden died by suicide last May. Now her left wrist is adorned with a Bible verse and a semicolon symbol, along with some text.

“It says Kaden: 5-8-15,” she said with her arm turned out. “And, ‘ask my story.’”

Trish’s twenty-five-year-old daughter Ashley has a fresh tattoo as well. She and her brother both loved Harry Potter, so a “Patronus”—a mythical creature from the books—is now inked on her right arm.

“And it has the word ‘companion’ on it,” Ashley said. “Because that’s what his name meant. I used the semicolon to be the “i” in companion.”

A semicolon is where an author could end a sentence, but chooses not to. In Trish and Ashley’s tattoos, the symbol represents the will to keep going. It comes from Project Semicolon: a national movement that started in 2013 to raise mental health awareness through semicolon tattoos. Ashley decided to bring the semicolon campaign here after her brother died. “You normally see people with tattoos who have struggled,” said Ashley. “That’s how they show it. So I thought bringing the semicolon movement to Gillette would be a great way to show that... it's everywhere. It’s with everyone.”

John Harvey at Felony Ink.
Credit Miles Bryan

John Harvey is the owner and chief artist at Felony Ink, a Gillette tattoo shop. Back in September, Trish and Ashley Simonson approached a bunch of tattoo places in the city to see if they were interested in being part of the semicolon campaign, but Harvey was the only taker.

“I want to give the community and the kids in the community something to talk about, to be able to share,” Harvey said, after finishing a touch up on local’s fresh rose tattoo. “Because they will come up to them and go, ‘Wow, you have a semicolon tattoo. Why?’ So it helps [people] open up and share their problems, and their experiences.”

John Harvey giving a customer a tattoo.
Credit Miles Bryan

The response was bigger than anybody expected. Harvey’s shop inked 187 semicolon tattoos in September alone, with the proceeds going to the Campbell County Suicide Prevention Coalition. And Felony Ink became a space where people could talk about stuff like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. John Harvey gave out his personal number to everyone who got the semicolon tattoo.

“I’ve actually had people call me. I’m just someone there, a shoulder to lean on. And I’ll definitely listen to anybody.”

But Harvey is not a trained counselor. And Gillette, like much of Wyoming, is short on professional mental health services. Spring Wilkins is with Wyoming’s Prevention Management Organization, which works on statewide anti-suicide efforts among other things.

Spring Wilkins is with the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming
Credit Miles Bryan

“We have one full M.D. psychiatrist working out of the [Gillette] hospital, and we have not been able to add anything to that. And I’m really surprised because it's such a high need.”

Wilkins said her organization’s current budget is smaller than its last one. And with the state facing a massive revenue shortfall more cuts are possible. Wilkins said the semicolon tattoo campaign is not a substitute for having enough mental health workers, or psych hospital beds. But it can reduce the stigma around mental health issues so that the resources that are here, like medication, are used by the people who need them.

“We would never think twice about taking meds to get insulin back in balance. Or cholesterol back in balance,” Wilson pointed out. “But to take a medication that puts your serotonin back in balance is somehow wildly different. And that is a really unfortunate thing.”

Back at the Simonson home, Trish and Ashley keep lots of pictures of their late son and brother Kaden around.

“He was very athletic,” Trish said. “He was gifted.”

They’re proud of the conversations about suicide they started around town with the semicolon tattoo campaign. But Ashley said Kaden’s memory drives them to do a whole lot more. Eventually, she wants to start a community mental health center in town.

“It doesn’t stop for us. It is a continuous struggle, and it hurts. Every day it hurts just as much as the day before.”