A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: The semicolon is a valuable writing tool, that could some day save a life

“The great thing about the semicolon,” I tell my students, “is that it can make your writing look more sophisticated, and forge longer sentences that are flowing, not choppy.”

But what I like best about semicolons is how Amy Bleuel transformed the symbol into a badge of hope. Thanks to her, the punctuation mark is a way to honor those who struggle with depression, suicide addiction, anxiety, and self-injury. According to the nonprofit movement Bleuel founded – Project Semi-colon – “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life.”

The analogy is clear. Just as the semicolon is a sign to pause before continuing a sentence, it is a reminder that the story isn’t over yet. There is more to tell.

So when you see a semicolon, you may be reminded that people are working together, through Project Semicolon, to change the stigma around suicide.

Suicide Prevention Week, September 9 – 15, is happening right now, and people are paying more attention to this growing cause of death in Kentucky because one person dies by suicide every 11 hours. In other words, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the Commonwealth overall, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To parse the numbers a bit more: For ages 15-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. From 35-54, suicide becomes the fourth leading cause of death. As we age, its prevalence decreases, making suicide the 9th leading cause of death for those between 55 and 64, and 16th for those 65-plus. Where Kentucky ranks toward the end in so many areas, we are 20th out of the 50 states, when it comes to suicide.

I have taken a pause in this writing to edit out the multiple uses of the word “suicide” in the prior paragraph; that’s what writers do.

“Find a synonym; consult a thesaurus,” I might advise my reluctant students. And then I realize how we shrink away from the word suicide. I suspect most of us resist discussing suicide too, although many have had some experience with its tragedy and the mournful aftermath.

A friend describes suicide as, “A nasty little word whispered behind closed doors.”

She decries those who describe suicide as a choice. When she thinks of her brother’s suicide, she asks, “How much of a choice was it for him?”

“I’ve been on the edge of the proverbial cliff my brother jumped,” she admits, recalling a day when she struggled her own compulsion.

“I recall getting in my vehicle and the racing thoughts that were seemingly calculating every option I had before me. “Somewhere in the middle of those thoughts, I had two reasonable solutions: to go the nearest mental health facility to surrender to admissions, or go to my medical provider and still risk admissions.”

“My medical provider was distinctly missing the message I was trying to communicate,” she went on.

She left that office with a prescription for anxiety; what she really needed was a referral to a psychiatrist.

A 2018 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that a majority of non-metropolitan counties (65 percent) do not have a psychiatrist and almost half of non-metropolitan counties (47 percent) do not have a psychologist. Poor access to such care, the findings conclude, is a serious issue when mixed with other public health crises like drug abuse and suicide.

Jackson Rainer is a clinical psychologist who has practiced in rural communities in western North Carolina and South Georgia. He says the problem is obvious: There are just not enough options; in some areas, no options at all.

“People in rural communities have limited access to the diversity of care they may need. There are very few services offered and people have to travel to reach them,” he says. “Typically, the first closest providers are generalists, and there is very little specialized care. There is no community (public) mental health care, and often there are no relevant hospital services within a reasonable distance. So, people are just left on their own.”

Those who want to join in with others to bring attention to issues around suicide can participate in a Suicide Prevention Walk on Saturday, Sept 15 at 6 pm. The walk begins on Main Street in Murray, Ky., at the Courthouse Square.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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