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“Talking About Mental Health Does Take its Toll… it’s Overwhelming Sometimes”

Activist Dior Vargas knows minorities are ignored when it comes to mental health. But change comes with a price.

Interview by Yu Vongkiatkajorn.

In 2013, Dior Vargas began researching mental health and depression online, only to notice that the images she was seeing were all too similar: rarely did she see a person of color.

“I thought that wasn’t an accurate representation of what it’s like to live with mental health — and that really needs to be confronted,” said Vargas, who is Latina. Not long after, Vargas launched the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project, a social media campaign focused on diversifying the representation of mental illness. She posted a photo of herself with a handwritten sign saying she had depression, then asked others to share their own photos and experiences. Submissions poured in.

“It started blowing up,” says Vargas. Participants told her the project helped them feel less alone; others said they were using it to start conversations with their families. “It became clear to me that people were yearning for a catalyst to get this going. People think there’s a look to mental illness, and there isn’t.”

Vargas ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to continue the project, but being so open about her experiences had some consequences: While applying for a job, an interviewer asked her if she would be “stable enough” to do the work (she told the interviewer the question was inappropriate and ended the conversation). And after a magazine published a story that portrayed her mother negatively, she’s learned to be careful about what she shares and how it affects her family.

But she says she doesn’t regret any of it. Since launching the project, she’s delved deep into working as a mental health advocate, with a focus on mental health issues within communities of color. She’s starting a master’s program in public health this fall. “This is something I’m so passionate about,” she tells me. “I feel like I know what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

You’ve been an activist since high school, but you said it took a long time for you to realize that you needed to include mental health in your work. Why is that?

I felt like it was a personal failure on my end, so I didn’t want to confront it, I didn’t want to think about it. Prior to the photo project, I was seeing a therapist and taking medication, so in some ways, I was taking care of myself and confronting my mental health issues, but I didn’t feel like I could do this publicly. 
I remember having dinner with two of my close friends who were talking about our experiences with mental health, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one going through it, especially in terms of race, class, and ethnicity, so I thought: There are other people that are like me that are going through this, so why am I not talking this publicly and why am I not doing this?

What was it like to do the project? Did you encounter any issues?

I kind of just threw myself into it. I started sharing my stories, volunteering with an organization, and started the photo project. But there were a few things that happened that didn’t occur to me. When the project started getting popular, I began getting negative feedback from white people who said I was being racist for not including them. They were saying, ‘why can’t I be part of this project?’ and ‘everyone has the same experiences,’ and ‘we’re all human.’ People were attacking me online. It was really upsetting.

In the end, I got over it because though I understand where they’re coming from — all of us need to work together and mental health affects everyone — it was more about highlighting the experiences that aren’t being talked about. It was more about helping my community.

There are times when I’ve thought: Why am I doing this? Why am I telling everyone what I’m going through? Will it affect my job? What am I going to do with my life? It’s definitely something to think about before you start that journey.

Do you still feel stigma around talking about your mental health?

I’ve done a lot of speaking engagements, and I always still feel nervous about doing it, I don’t think it’s about the content, it’s more about: let me do this justice. I want to make sure I accomplish what I need to and help other people. But honestly, talking about mental health does take its toll, it is overwhelming sometimes, and I feel like I do need breaks.

There are a lot of times when, in some ways, I really re-traumatize myself. I’ll talk about things that really brought me a lot of pain. It triggers me. But in the end, I know that it’s something I need to do, and it’s something that can help others. I get through it.

Why do you think finding mental health is so difficult for minorities?

A big problem is finding professionals that we can feel comfortable sharing our experiences with. A lot of people will finally decide they’ll go see someone, and have a horrible experience, and not go back. Sometimes there’s a lack of accessibility and services in the neighborhood. Even getting to the doctor is a lot. I also think there’s just other things that we view as higher priority — making a living, putting food on the table, and simply surviving in general, and we think it’s a privilege to actually take that time to talk about ourselves, and to pay someone to listen. 
There’s been a few times I’ve seen a white therapist, and felt that I couldn’t be myself, and felt like I was being stereotyped, like they weren’t understanding my cultural experiences. Even as an advocate, I have taken a break from looking for one because I have so many other things to do. It’s definitely hard.

What are some ways that systems could change?

We need to normalize mental health in our communities. A lot of the issues are structural — how can we get more POC to be part of the profession for example. I don’t know structurally how we can incentivize that. It’s hard as one person to think about improving accessibility overall, but I do think we need to talk about it with one another, with our families in a way that is comfortable for us. A lot of us don’t have the language to express these feelings, so I think we have to honor the language that we use and also improve upon it, and educate ourselves. The more information we have, the better.
I also think it’s important to validate other people’s experiences. A lot of people in our community haven’t been diagnosed, but that doesn’t mean that what we’re going through isn’t legitimate. A lot of people say ‘I haven’t been diagnosed, but I experience depression.’ Then that’s what you’re going through. We shouldn’t be so dependent on a diagnosis to validate our experiences.
I do think that organizations that focus on communities of color should include mental health as a big part of their work. There needs to be more sharing of resources because they are out there.