Challenging the ‘whiteness’ of mental illness

This post is the beginning of a conversation — and we want you to be a part of it. Find out how at the bottom of this story.


Is mental illness a “white person’s disease”? Dior Vargas says that’s often how media and pop culture portray it.

On April 12th, Vargas is bringing her photo project ‘offline’ for a show at La Casa Azul bookstore in Spanish Harlem. A panel of people who submitted photos will talk.

Vargas, who refers to herself as a Latina feminist mental health activist, wants to change that perception.

Last fall, Vargas, who is based in New York, started the People of Color + Mental Illness Photo Project, which invites people of color to upload photos of themselves holding a sign that talks about their mental-health struggles. So far, more than 50 people have submitted photos, from all over North America.

Vargas aims to counterbalance what’s normally shown on TV: “…white women who are upper middle class, who don’t have the struggles that people of color deal with.”

During a recent Skype interview, she gives examples like Claire Danes’ bipolar character on the TV series “Homeland,” or the film “Silver Linings Playbook,” which deals with two white protagonists’ battles with mental illness.

“I’m not minimizing their experiences,” Vargas said, “but I think it’s important to include the voices of those who are constantly silenced.”

That’s where her photo project comes in—Vargas wants to amplify the voices from communities of color that don’t normally discuss mental-health issues.

She says it’s one thing to be told by others: “‘You’re not alone and you’re not the only one dealing with this.’”

“But being able to visually see that, I think, is a lot more impactful and empowering to these individuals.”

Multiple studies show that people of color face specific mental-health issues that their white American counterparts may not.

From the National Center for Health Statistics report “Health, United States, 2011"

People of color also have less access to mental health care—and if they do seek it out, it’s often inferior or not culturally competent.

Those services may not be “culturally sensitive and linguistically appropriate,” says Rick Ybarra, program officer at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.

Without cultural competency, Ybarra says people could be inaccurately diagnosed, given inappropriate treatment recommendations or end up with poorer health outcomes than those who receive culturally competent care.

But within these communities of color, there’s a larger issue at hand: no one wants to talk about mental-health issues.

“We’re very much about saving face,” Vargas says, “not airing our dirty laundry, representing ourselves as strong individuals who can go through anything — really just being super resilient. And I think there’s this [expectation] placed upon us where we’re not supposed to show our vulnerability.”

Vargas is hoping her project will break through some of those stigmas. So far, she’s seeing positive results.

“Some people have told me that they are more open about it, that it’s given them the strength to do something about their mental health care,” she says.

Vargas has opened a call for submissions for the People of Color + Mental Illness Anthology, which, in addition to the photos, will include essays, short stories and poetry. She hopes it will “amplify the voices of people of color” and help them move beyond the shame associated with mental illness.

“I want to be able to give that opportunity to say, ‘No, my life is meaningful, my life is worth living.”

We want to open this conversation up to you.

Do you agree that POC are often missing from the conversation about mental health? Why? What needs to change?

Have you experienced it first-hand?

Click “Write your response” below to join the conversation.

And tweet us at @ajplus with the hashtag #NoStigma.