Mental health tattoos are one of the ways we can communicate about everyday struggles without speaking a word. Mental illnesses are often invisible, so people devise creative ways to 'speak' up and share their stories.
This article will examine tattoos that share mental health expressions, statements, reminders, and personal reflections. We will also explore why people choose mental health tattoos and share some helpful tips we've come across.
There is little research on the psychological benefits or otherwise of tattoos. However, some researchers like Simone Muri have examined the role of art therapy and tattooing.
Muri's research found that tattoos can have healing effects on those with mental health illness. Some people get tattoos to remember their struggles throughout a mental health journey or to signify progress or recovery. Tattoos can also serve as a symbol of hope and assurance.
A paper by Everett W. Painter further explored the therapeutic effects of tattoos on trauma victims1. Some researchers believe that expressive art is an effective way of helping people share their experiences, promoting healing and overall improvements in a person's state of mind. In addition, mental health tattoos are a way to promote mental health awareness.
Whereas studies are thin on the ground exploring the role of tattooing in support, or otherwise, of mental health recovery, a significant body of work does positively link art and mental health.
Of course, tattoos aren't for everyone. However, for many, they can mark aspects of life's journey, often beautifully, and even serve as a beneficial statement impacting well-being, a positive attitude, and self-discovery.
Related: For words from others, check out our compilation of inspiring mental health quotes where others share aspects of their journey, which may also inspire your ideas for tattoos.
Our rundown of some of the most striking mental health facts can also inform your thinking and highlight the growing importance of mental health awareness and stamping out stigma.
If you're thinking about mental health tattoos, there are a few things you should take into consideration. Especially if it's your first time getting a tattoo. Here are five steps to take before getting a tattoo:
There is a vast range of mental health tattoo designs and styles. Your mental health tattoo could be an illustration or script, and your decision should also consider the color, size, and placement of the tattoo you want. Before you dive in, a little research will help you explore and inspire your own design choice.
A tattoo, of course, is more or less forever, and one's journey through mental health is a very personal experience. Take your time to ensure your choice speaks to you, and you're happy the artistic expression is something you want to live with.
You'll find our recommended mental health tattoo ideas as you keep reading.
We advise searching for tattoo shops and artists that are qualified and safe. A qualified tattoo shop should have a license displayed on its website or in the shop and do a little homework prior as to their credentials and if their style fits with your ideas.
Before getting a tattoo, you and the tattoo artist should be on the same page. First, run your tattoo design by your selected tattoo artist to invite feedback and explore how appropriate they are to achieve it. They can also help you enhance your design or create something bespoke based on your ideas and concepts. You can use this time to get familiar with your artist to have a seamless tattoo appointment experience.
Consultations are also a means to evaluate the tattoo shop's sanitary conditions and discuss the tattoo artist's experience.
After you've had your tattoo done or been inked as it's commonly known, follow the aftercare instructions given to you by your tattoo artist. Keep your tattoo clean to get a perfect tattoo after healing and prevents the occurrence of an infection.
Lastly, you shouldn't be afraid to ask your tattoo artist questions. It is okay to have inquiries. Asking questions will help you get rid of whatever uncertainties you have.
There are loads of mental health tattoo designs that can inspire your own choice. You can choose your motif based on what you want it to represent - personal meanings. Furthermore, you can select a design that reminds you of your struggle or transformation - and gives you hope and encouragement.
Lotus flower tattoos represent rebirth, strength, personal growth, and spiritual enlightenment. Many choose these mental health tattoos when reflecting on the blossoming of life or recovery, and they are an excellent choice for anxiety tattoos. Here are different lotus flower tattoo designs:
Unalome originates from Buddhist practice. It symbolizes the path toward enlightenment and self-love. The swirly lines of unalome represent the mental health struggles you face daily. In contrast, the straight lines of the tattoo represent clarity and peace of mind, while the dots symbolize the nothingness of death. Here are some lotus unalome tattoo designs:
Colors also hold meanings and symbols. A red-colored lotus refers to spiritual growth and rebirth, while the green-colored lotus infers self-growth and improvement. Black-colored lotus tattoos represent authority, power, and death.
As a mental health tattoo, it will remind you that you have authority over anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues. Explore these mental health symbols below:
A healthy diet provides the amino acids required for our bodies to make serotonin naturally. Seratonin is a neurotransmitter often considered a mood stabilizer. However, serotonin deficiencies can result in anxiety and other psychological conditions, and research has linked a lack of serotonin to depression3.
A serotonin tattoo is a gentle reminder that you deserve happiness regardless of the situation you might find yourself in and not blame yourself for your mood instabilities. It isn't your fault. It is due to the chemical imbalance in your brain. Getting a serotonin tattoo can also be a way to motivate yourself to do things that make you happy, especially on your low days. Here are some serotonin designs:
A semicolon tattoo is a symbol that represents mental health, suicide awareness, and prevention. Semicolon tattooing became popular when Project Semicolon, a global movement to raise awareness and promote suicide prevention efforts, launched in April 2013. The project's initiative applied a semicolon's grammatical function to real-life issues. Hence the slogan, 'A semicolon represents a sentence the author could've ended but chose not to.' The author is you, and the sentence is your life.
You don't have to get a semicolon tattoo because of its universal meaning, and you can choose to attach your own meaning to it, not least the semi-colon appears often in popular culture.
Also, people without mental illness can get a semicolon tattoo to show support and help raise awareness for mental health problems. A perk of getting a semicolon tattoo is the ease of integrating it into different tattoo designs. Check out some of the beautiful designs and ideas below:
The green ribbon, also referred to as the mental health ribbon, is the global symbol of mental health awareness and can also be associated with bipolar disorder. The green ribbon Tattoo is an excellent mental health tattoo choice, especially for people who want to show their support for mentally ill people.
An anxiety tattoo reminds you to breathe and let your worries float away. Anxiety tattoos could be a combination of quotes and illustrations. It all depends on your choice. You can associate many symbols and images with an anxiety disorder or simply feeling a little out of place, and some encourage you to let go of anxious thoughts. In contrast, others remind you of your anxiety struggles.
Butterflies and birds are symbols that remind you of freedom and growth, letting go of all worries and fears. Here are some bird and butterfly tattoo ideas and examples:
Depression, to some extent, is common to almost all mental health disorders. Depression tattoos can represent bleak and tired emotions or self-doubt. They show that a person has been going through a lot. Others can also reflect on a journey through recovery and wellness. Some tattoos relate to depression, some reminding us of worse times and others of better ones ahead.
Instead of getting illustrative mental health tattoos, you can opt for quotes instead. Words have a positive effect on the human mind, especially when they are words that you like to hear. Here are some quote tattoos you might like:
If you are skeptical about getting a permanent tattoo for one reason or another, a temporary one is a great option. Temporary tattoos can last up to 4 weeks, depending on their placement location. Also, temporary tattoos allow you to explore as many tattoo designs as you want and see how they feel before committing to the real thing.
Temporary tattoos also give you creative freedom. You can create temporary tattoos yourself and rock them as you please. Brands that allow you to create custom temporary tattoos are:
The big marketplaces like Etsy and Amazon also have many temporary tattoo options, styles, and ideas to check out. Start with small tattoos in the style you might ultimately like permanently and see how you get on.
Here are some benefits of mental health tattoos:
Getting your own tattoo about mental health helps you share mental illness perspectives with others. The uniqueness surrounding mental health tattoos probes people's curiosity. Their curiosity prompts them to ask questions about the tattoo so that you can start a conversation about mental health. Your answers can help grow mental health awareness and reduce stigma.
For instance, the semicolon tattoo is a universal tattoo symbol that celebrates and helps normalize people with mental illness. Furthermore, it fosters a sense of belonging. When other people with mental illness see someone with a mental health tattoo, they can connect with others, find solidarity, and not feel alone in their struggles.
A mental health tattoo encourages reflection and can improve your mental health recovery, demonstrating a commitment to yourself.
Mental health tattoos can help remind people to stay committed to themselves and their recovery. The aftercare required during the tattoo's healing stage helps them focus on things that matter, ushering them into an improved mental state. While reflecting on the personal story that led you to your tattoo choice can also prove beneficial.
However, similarly, mental health tattoos can serve as a negative reminder and, therefore, may not be right for everyone. If you're unsure, we recommend you urge on the side of caution. Moving forward with your tattoo choice should only happen once it feels 100% right for you.
Mental health tattoos can help boost your body image and increase your self-esteem, particularly for victims of self-harm, addiction, and suicide. The scars from these behaviors diminish a person's confidence, but getting mental health cover-up tattoos can help you fall in love with yourself and your past struggles while promoting self-care.
Mental health tattoos allow people to express themselves and stand tall in their individuality. Getting a mental health tattoo is a way of conveying personal experiences without talking about them. For many, this ancient art form is a means of expressing sorrow, pain, struggles, hope, and courage.
Mental health tattoos provide a safe space for people to let go of their emotional pain and trauma. The tattooing and healing process is a ritual to help let go of mental burdens while increasing optimism for the future. For many, the deep meaning of acquiring meaningful tattoos is beneficial to their overall well-being.
Tattoos and other body modifications like piercings are considered self-harming practices by some. However, it cannot be wholly accepted as a mode of self-harm because it is today a widely accepted art form and popular in many cultures worldwide. To substantiate this, tattoos are not part of the non-suicidal self-injury conditions as stated in the Diagnostic and statistical manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition2.
Mental illness is a collective term for a group of conditions that affect human behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Self-harming practices are common to all forms of mental illness.
An interview with Tony Brown, a retired psychiatric nurse, by YAYO, a tattoo aftercare brand, provides more insight into this discourse. He explained the psychology of self-harm, stating that.
"It is a release from psychological and emotional pressure as there is action control, and the individual's control means that they can determine the degree of release. The 'pleasure' boundaries are extended through the pain barrier because of the sense of fulfillment, thus increasing a person's self-esteem and ability to be in charge of their own emotional lives. It is a form of self-punishment and a method of controlling one's life when it feels that there is no control due to external pressures."
Like every other researcher on the topic we've found, Tony Brown claimed that there is a need for more research on the relationship between mental illness and tattoos in general. Although getting a tattoo isn't self-harming, you can indulge in it as a self-harming practice because it hurts for an extended period. Cutting and other self-injury lead to scars and a risk of infection. However, tattoos are a form of body art that doesn't leave the skin scarred.
In his words,
"It may be a form of self-harm and mutilation with the usual control triggers and enhanced satisfaction as the outcome. Again the self-harmer passes on the responsibility for the act. They become part of the ritual and make the sacrifice rather than the one wielding the sacrificial blade."
He believes that the satisfaction gained from cutting can also be achieved from mental health tattoos.
While it gives people that have self-harm urges a safe escape, it can also help heal the trauma from self-injuries scars. There's an increase in self-esteem and trauma healing process in people who got coverups for their scars. It is a source of hope, strength, and courage and can remind people to minimize negative self-talk.
So, could tattoos become a form of self-harm? It is very likely that a person starts to get tattoos to indulge in the pain that accompanies it.
Tattoos are a form of body art that can impact a person's psychological state. However, the intention behind the act and its relationship to personal meaning sets it apart from other self-harm practices.
Getting a tattoo is a significant decision that requires prior planning. Anyone can get a meaningful tattoo, but we should treat the process more delicately if we already have issues with our mental health.
As a global society, we don't discuss the therapeutic implications of tattoos enough. People get mental health tattoos to express what they have experienced. The tattoos also serve as a constant reminder of our progress, and an encouragement tactic, amongst other things.
Mental health tattoos also allow us to raise mental health awareness and show support to others. Whether they are for you or not, there's plenty to be inspired by with our selection of expressive designs linking art and mental health.
Painter, Everett W., Therapeutic Aspects of Tattoo Acquisition: A Phenomenological Inquiry into the Connection Between Psychological Trauma and the Writing of Stories into Flesh. PhD diss., University of Tennessee, 2017.
Singhal A, Ross J, Seminog O, Hawton K, Goldacre MJ. Risk of self-harm and suicide in people with specific psychiatric and physical disorders: comparisons between disorders using English national record linkage. J R Soc Med. 2014 May;107(5):194-204. doi: 10.1177/0141076814522033. PMID: 24526464; PMCID: PMC4023515.
Cowen PJ, Browning M. What has serotonin to do with depression? World Psychiatry. 2015 Jun;14(2):158-60. doi: 10.1002/wps.20229. PMID: 26043325; PMCID: PMC4471964.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.