The Failures of the Green Bandana Project

Mental health and sexual assault struggles are tricky subjects. Not only do they affect a very large percentage of the population on some level, but they are heavy issues which can drastically impact a person’s life. As these issues become more widely discussed and addressed, colleges and universities across the country have begun making mental health resources a priority. One way this can be seen each day here at Luther College is through the Green Bandana Project.


Started by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter of UW Madison in 2017, the Green Bandana Project is a mental health initiative dedicated to helping increase awareness and provide support to those struggling with mental illness. Brought to Luther College in 2019 by the suggestion of an RA, interested students can have a green bandana sent to their SPO. Students are advised to attach the bandana to their backpacks as a sign that they are open to discussing mental health issues with their peers and being a resource to those who need one. They are also commonly seen on doorknobs, bags, and in other highly visible places.


Now while this project is a great idea, here is where I started to fall off the wagon. Though started with admirable intentions, I believe that the haphazard vision of this project has allowed for the wearing of the green bandanas to become a school sponsored form of virtue signaling, as opposed to the widespread support system it was initially hoped to be.


The issues I noticed began with the lack of formal education on the project, both for wearers of the bandanas and those potentially seeking help. While most on campus seem to be aware of some meaning behind the bandanas, I mentioned this initiative to several people who had no clue what I was talking about. Among those who had, I heard mixed responses. 


“It’s used to promote mental health awareness,” Mackenzie Milder (‘25) said. “You can ask the person who displays the bandana questions about mental health and where to find mental health resources.”


While this seems to be the general understanding of the program, others thought it was a project designated to sexual assault issues, and was only related to mental health by proxy.


“Green bandanas are worn by students around campus to give awareness,” Jacob Klingsten (‘25) said. “[the bandanas show] others that they are more than welcome to go up to a student with a green bandana if they want to talk about SA.”


This confusion over the purpose of the bandanas may be a result of mixed signals. I have even heard from some that a dark bandana is meant for sexual assault awareness, while a lime green bandana is meant for mental health awareness, although I have found no confirmation of this on the project’s official page.


While on a college campus there is always going to be some confusion on projects like this, the lack of proper instruction I found amongst my fellow first years seems to extend to the wearers of the bandanas themselves. To be part of the project, students are only required to watch a five minute video explaining the project and what they should do when approached, write an example of resources a student could be directed to when in need, and fill out a form on the project’s page expressing interest. This easy access to the bandanas, free from any substantive training or evaluation, undoubtedly increases awareness and makes the project more widespread. But it also leaves the door open for unfortunate circumstances. 


It seems clear to me that this system is very vulnerable to both accidental and purposeful misuse. If those given the bandanas are not properly trained, at least on some level, to deal with different mental health issues, students seeking help may come away worse off than they were before. Also, as these good samaritans are not mandated reporters, they may stay silent in a situation where they ought to tell more proper caregivers, leading to a possibly very serious outcome. 


On top of this, the lack of screening leaves open the possibility that those seeking to take advantage of vulnerable people could use these bandanas for bad purposes. I, for one, know of at least one person who’s rapist proudly wears a green bandana around campus, making it possible for others affected by something as traumatic as sexual assault to be driven right into the path of another abuser. While this example is somewhat anecdotal in nature, if it has happened once, it could happen again. Although situations such as this may be hard to avoid with any type of qualified control, the complete lack of a safeguard there now only makes this a more probable reality.


Undoubtedly, situations such as this are not the norm. But what seems to have become the typical culture surrounding this project is a level of “show” that the bandanas play into. Most of my fellow first years were made aware of this project somewhere in their admissions journey. As I said previously, mental health has become an increasingly prominent subject in people’s lives, and as such it is reasonable to expect Luther admission’s staff to reference it, and other mental health programs, as a selling point to potential students.


“I learned about it through our orientation,” Mark Severtson (‘25) said. “I learned that if I ever have anything related to my mental health that I need to talk to someone about, I can reach out to anyone with a green bandana.”


While I understand the idea of promoting what appears outwardly to be such a cool program, the constant promotion of the Green Bandana Project seems to have turned them into a form of virtue signaling, advertising to those around the wearers that they are a “good”, “trustworthy”, or “responsible” person. I am by no means jaded enough to believe every person wearing them has this goal in mind; I have many friends and people I admire who I know do it for the right reasons. But it cannot be ignored that nearly every RA, admissions member, tour guide, choir officer, team captain, insert high-profile student here, has a green bandana tied to their bookbag. This is not by accident. 


The school has promoted the Green Bandana Project to students so heavily that there is this unspoken mindset where people think they must have a green bandana. And even if this idea was not intentionally ingrained into the Luther culture, it is being continually perpetuated by the administration, without fixing significant issues in the fabric of the project. 


It should also be noted that the Green Bandana Project is not the only perpetrator of this “show” surrounding mental health at Luther. Luther Counseling Services was one of the main selling points I considered in coming to Luther. As someone who has struggled with mental health, the idea of a small school with more time to devote to each student in counseling was very appealing. But once here, I discovered this to be more pretense than reality.


Another friend of mine had a similar experience, with the same concept being promoted to her before coming to Luther, so upon her arrival at the school she quickly signed up for one-on-one counseling.


“Within the first month of the fall semester [I] went through the 30-45 minute process…so that I could request a single appointment,” she said. “The first email, besides the confirmation one, said that they were overwhelmed––they were just too busy, and that it would be a while. It wasn’t until about the third week of February that I finally was able to set up a session.”


This rather absurd and unfortunately long wait was interspersed only with responses to her follow ups with staff, asking if she wanted to keep waiting at all. It is incredibly heartbreaking to me to realize that a student who approaches a green bandana wearer would almost definitely be pointed towards this resource for help, where they might not be able to get the help they need in a timely manner. While Counseling Services may be struggling with staff issues––as many departments at Luther have been recently––it is irresponsible on the part of the college to use this resource as a selling point for Luther when it is clearly not living up to the standards as it was advertised.


The Green Bandana Project is a wonderful idea, and by no means should be left behind entirely, but I truly believe that it has some serious failings that are being overlooked in an unfortunate cocktail of toxic positivity. Until students address these failings and force Luther administrators to address these issues, I expect it will remain a school-subsidized shell of a potentially incredible program.