Campus News

Project Semicolon inspires hope after tragedy

The founder of Project Semicolon died of suicide in March. | Andrea Fernández Velázquez/The Cougar

Students and survivors of attempted suicide gathered Thursday at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center to raise awareness for Project Semicolon as part of “Be Healthy at UH” week.

The nationwide non-profit organization Project Semicolon started as a suicide prevention and awareness campaign in 2013. The gathering at the University of Houston follows the death of national founder Amy Bleuel, who committed suicide on March 24 at the age of 31.

“We lost one of our own in the mental health community, but we are going to continue on,” said Mariellee Aurelio, a suicide survivor and human nutrition and foods senior.

According to an article in the New York Times, the suicide rate in the United States increased to 13 per 100,000 people in 2016 — the highest it’s been since 1986.

The American College Health Association’s spring 2016 National Health Assessment noted that 49 percent of students reported feeling hopeless, 59.3 percent reported feeling very lonely, 85.1 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do and 81.7 reported feeling exhausted (but not from physical activity) within the last 12 months.

Students who have lost loved ones because of suicide or mental health disorders got temporary semicolon tattoos to support the cause.

“I found out about the semicolon project a week ago because someone online was talking about Amy Bleuel losing her fight,” said Aimen Abbasi, a biology junior. “I wanted to show support by getting a tattoo showing anyone can stay strong through their own fight.”

The “Be Healthy at UH” week has had different physical and mental health-related events, organized by the “Be Healthy Co-op” on campus, which includes the six health and wellness departments involved in campus recreation: UH Wellness, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the UH Health Center, Center for Students with Disabilities and Cougars in Recovery.

“My cousin and my battle buddy passed away,” said Alyson Whitaker, a kinesiology junior. “A reminder that just because people are gone does not mean they are forgotten. Both of the people that I wrote about were 19 when they passed away.”

Melanee Wood, the assistant director of fitness programs at UH, was inspired to bring Project Semicolon to the University after her uncle committed suicide.

“Because of the stigma around mental health, we just never talked about it,” Wood said. “So last year’s event for me was really impactful in helping me process what happened, think about it, talk about it and deal with it in general.”

Students were able to answer a suicidal-risk questionnaire and speak to CAPS therapist Janet Clemenson, who runs the informal consultation program “Let’s Talk” Monday through Thursday in different campus locations.

“Depression and anxiety are the two most consistent problems to college counseling centers,” Clemenson said.

The fear of vulnerability and judgment are some of the reasons why it is challenging for people to share their anxiety and depression states, Clemenson said.

At the event, students were able to write letters to people they have lost, and share memories and personal stories on a memorial wall.

“The significance of the semicolon is making a conscious choice to continue something when they could have ended it,” Wood said. “It has become an international symbol for support for people who are struggling with mental health.”

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