Verona Area High School alumnus Conlin Bass is on a mission at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to make sure no one feels alone.
The Bandana Project, an initiative Bass started as a freshman in January 2016, has members with lime green bandanas around campus to alert other students they have mental health-related resources. It provides the students who volunteer the opportunity to be a resource and an ally for their classmates who are struggling with mental health issues, while working to end the stigma around the topic.
“At its most (basic) level, I hope that people see the bandanas and know that it means that there are people out there that care,” the 2015 graduate told the Press earlier this month. “They’re not alone if they’re struggling or their friend is struggling … it’s nothing at all to be ashamed of to seek help.”
The concept of The Bandana Project is simple: If a student agrees to carry between three to five resource cards detailing mental health and suicide prevention resources – available on campus or beyond – they tie a lime green bandana on their backpack or bag as a symbol to others that they are an ally who is willing to help.
Students don’t receive professional mental health intervention training, Bass said, but are equipped to help their peers take the first step to receiving help.
“When we distribute bandanas, we give a spiel to everyone who receives one … basically just saying that having the bandana on your backpack means that you’re open to being a resource to people on campus,” he said. “The program itself is just a way to get resources out there and create visibility for mental health awareness.”
Bass and the UW-Madison chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) organization he helps lead have partnered with University Health Services and the UW-Madison police department to help provide the cards to lime green bandana carriers.
Many of the services listed on the cards are through the Health Services department, and include information on the police department’s crisis intervention team and the dean of students office.
The partnerships with university agencies have been symbiotic, Bass said, as UHS and the police department have helped The Bandana Project print the resource cards and buy bandanas, respectively, and in the process have helped spread the mission and information about the university’s initiatives to support student mental health.
The cards also include step-by-step instructions on what to say when calling 911 in response to a mental health crisis and prompts and phrases that one can say if they believe a friend or a classmate is struggling with mental health.
“Lots of times, I think people either don’t know what to say, or they don’t want to say the wrong thing, so they end up saying nothing,” Bass said. “They’re prompts that get people comfortable talking with someone who might be struggling.”
A daily reminder
There’s not a person who goes through life without having mental health issues impact themselves or someone they know, Bass said.
That includes him.
As a student at VAHS, he lost both an uncle and a friend to suicide.
It was after his uncle’s death that he and his family members started to become involved with NAMI, participating in NAMIWalks to raise awareness for suicide prevention and reduce the stigma around mental illness.
Participating in NAMI events opened his eyes to how far-reaching mental illness was, Bass said.
“This is an issue that affects more than just our family,” he said. “No family is left untouched … every family has an experience with it at some point or another.”
A UW outlet
After his friend died by suicide his senior year of high school, Bass said he entered college in the fall of 2015 looking for an outlet to raise awareness for mental health.
Bass found that outlet by joining the UW-Madison chapter of NAMI his freshman year. His leadership roles within the organization allowed him to implement the idea of using bandanas as a symbol of being a mental health ally halfway through his freshman year.
He got the idea from a friend at another university after one of the friend’s professors lost a son to suicide.
“As a show of support for that professor, they wore white bandanas on their backpacks,” Bass said. “I just thought, ‘Hey, this could be a good broader mental health awareness movement.’
“(It’s) a good way to get a conversation going and make lime green a noticeable color on campus.”
Through leading The Bandana Project, the neurobiology major has found that there is more to mental health awareness than a focus on suicide prevention. He said that intervention early-on can help those struggling with mental health issues before they advance to thoughts of suicide.
“It’s a reminder that there are people out there who care and want to see change, and want to create a world where it doesn’t necessarily have to go to suicide prevention,” he said. “It could just be people getting help when they need it.”
Spreading the word
The lime green bandana initiative has spread in much the same way the idea for The Bandana Project spread to Bass by word-of-mouth from his friend attending another university.
On campus, Bass and other members of the UW-Madison NAMI chapter spread the word through setting up a table in high foot-traffic areas and going to other campus organizations to speak about The Bandana Project.
Since January 2016, 3,500 lime green bandanas have been given out to students, Bass said.
The “grassroots movement” has since spread to other campuses as well, including University of Minnesota, UW-La Crosse and University of Minnesota-Mankato, as well as a few high schools, Bass said.
“The nice thing about this project is that once more people hear about it, it does the work on its own – just a snowball effect,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting people to be as excited to help out in the ways people have been to represent the cause and the movement.”