Can A Tattoo Help You Overcome Mental Health Problems?

That unmistakable buzzing sound floods the Sydenham tattoo parlour like a swarm of wasps descending on a summer barbecue. The needle carefully traces my design, making me wince, but within 30 minutes we’re done.

It’s not the first bumble bee tattooist Katy O’Shea has inked this year, but it’s mine and it’s perfect. It rests on my inner forearm and quickly develops the nickname Bert, after my grandad.

It’s been about four years since I decided I’d ink the insect onto my skin one day. I was in my second year at university when the anxiety that had been quietly bubbling under the surface suddenly washed over me like a storm, flooding my days with mood swings and depression.

There were times when my head was a throbbing hive of white noise and terrifying moments where I felt paralysed and unable to leave my room. Frequent panic attack episodes often left me a sobbing crumpled heap in friends’ arms. Eventually, pills were introduced and therapy brought in. After a while the fog began to lift and I started to feel like myself again.

In the short story Forever Overhead, author David Foster Wallace says: “Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.” My bee tattoo symbolises this horribly dark part of my life but it also reminds me that I got through it and that it’s okay to take a second for yourself while the chaos of the world continues around you.

One in four people experience mental health issues each year, suicide remains the leading cause of death for men under 45 and extensive waiting times for young people trying to access mental health services are causing their conditions to worsen.

It’s unlikely tattooing your skin will miraculously wash away your anxiety; we’ve all seen the inky evidence of drunken nights out and the embarrassing tributes to exes you’d rather just forget... But sometimes an armour of ink (big or small) can give you the strength you need to keep going. For Charlotte Underwood, her tattoos helped aid her recovery.

Having self-harmed and struggled with her mental health from a young age, Underwood was hit hard when her father took his own life five years ago. “My first tattoo became his signature,” she explains. “It’s all I really had of him, in the grief we didn’t think to keep much of his stuff.”

Charlotte Underwood tattooed her dad's signature on her wrist after his death (Charlotte Underwood)

She got the design on her left wrist as it’s “the same arm that my dad had caught me harming and sat down with me, supporting me through it”. Carrying such a personal memento of him has helped Underwood through dark times: “I can remember my dad’s support and it’s like he’s telling me it all over again; it’s a perfect reminder.”

Tattooed self-worth coach and mental health blogger, Kat Nicholls chose designs that celebrated her progress. The 31-year-old marked her recovery from an eating disorder and depression with symbols that remind her of her journey and all that she has achieved.

Kat Nicholls' tattoos include feathers across her ribs and an "S" in ancient Tibetan (Kat Nicholls)

Delicate feathers across her ribs and an “S” in ancient Tibetan embody Nicholls’ strength: “I realised that having a mental illness didn’t make me weak and that was something I never wanted to forget,” she says. “Getting a reminder marked in permanent ink felt like a good way to do that.”

The stigma surrounding ink still exists today, with a recent study finding that people with tattoos are stereotyped and considered more negatively than those with bare skin. But for Nicholls, tattoos are “conversation starters” and her designs in particular allow her to break down the stigma surrounding wellbeing: “I’m always open about their meanings - anything to help make mental health part of everyday conversation.”

The Semicolon Project encourages people worldwide to speak out about mental health and in particular, suicide. The movement’s message has expanded beyond its initial group and countless semicolons symbolising that “your story isn’t over” have been inked onto skin since.

Mum-of-two Lisa Johnson received her own semicolon just weeks ago as a reminder that she is the author of her own story. Although the 41-year-old hadn’t realised her ink was part of an entire movement, she’s embraced its message: “I have suffered from anxiety and so I love that we are all in it together.”

Lisa Johnson's semicolon tattoo reminds her that she is the author of her story (Lisa Johnson)

“I really like that what I teach every day is now represented on my body,” she says. “We get to choose our paths, our lives. We decide to continue it.”

The decision to get inked varies from person to person - whether it’s a spontaneous celebration of a moment or a carefully planned tribute to a loved one. Tattoos can stand for so much more than they initially appear to.

For me, and many others, ink reminds us of what we’ve been through, we’re battling against and what we’ve overcome. “Trends will change, the ink will fade, my body might stretch and distort, but it’s not about the way they look - it’s what they represent,” explains Nicholls.”I’ll always look at them and feel proud of myself.”