“Hey, I’m an Ally for Mental Health”

The Bandana Project turns students into supporters for struggling classmates.

Conlin Bass sports a green bandana on his backpack

UW–Madison student Conlin Bass founded the Bandana Project in 2016, and it’s spreading nationwide. Kayla Huynh

They’re hard to miss around campus: thousands of bright green bandanas twirling from students’ backpacks. But it’s no Gen Z fashion statement — it’s a statement of support for thousands of their college classmates who may be struggling with mental health issues or suicidal thoughts.

The Bandana Project movement, founded in 2016 by UW–Madison student Conlin Bass ’18, is spreading nationwide with a silent but powerful message: You’re not alone.

“The green bandana is kind of a billboard on our backpacks,” explains UW student Kenia Link x’21, director of the Bandana Project. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m an ally for mental health. I’m here for you. It’s normal to talk about this.’ ”

Any student can pick up a bandana from the UW chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which oversees the project in close partnership with University Health Services and the UW Police Department. All participants carry campus resource cards to hand out to students who approach them.

Some 6,000 UW students display the bandanas each year, and the project just received a big boost thanks to a fundraising pledge from the Class of 2020. Consulting with the UW’s Bandana Project, students at more than two dozen high schools and universities — including Purdue and Nebraska — have also joined the effort.

Although Link believes society is making progress on mental health awareness, suicide remains the second-highest cause of death among college students. A 2019 survey of UW students found that 1 in 10 had thought about suicide in the past year.

For hope, Link thinks back to one of her first interactions as a Bandana Project participant. A freshman inquired about the bandana and, overcome with relief, shared that she’d been struggling with suicidal ideation since arriving on campus.

“She told me that it made her whole day turn around for the better,” Link says.

And then she asked for a green bandana.

Published in the Summer 2020 issue

Tags: Student life, Students

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