Dior Vargas is a Latina feminist mental health activist whose work has appeared in publications such as Forbes, Newsweek and The Guardian, and whose many awards include being named the White House Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy Across Generations.
But in 2014, before any of this, she was searching for a way to be more active in mental health advocacy, which was something that she related to deeply as a result of being the survivor of multiple suicide attempts made while she was a child and young adult. Vargas began doing online research on mental health and she found image after image of White people, especially White women, looking sad and overwhelmed.
“I thought, I live with mental illness, but I’m not like that all the time, and I don’t want people to think that’s how I feel all the time,” Vargas says. “It is a reality for a lot of people, but again, there weren’t people from my community that I saw in those images and articles.”
Vargas wanted to create a space that showed a different reality; one that showed that mental illnesses were not just a “White person thing,” as she had been raised to believe.
And with that, the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project was born. The first photo featured in the project’s work is one of Vargas holding a piece of cardboard that reads: “My name is Dior Vargas and I have major depressive disorder.” From there, the photos of people of color holding pieces of paper proclaiming their names and mental illnesses flooded into the project.
Vargas visited Portland in September, where she joined 10 other women speaking at Grit and Grace Multicultural Women’s Health Conference. The Sept. 28 event, put on by ASHA International, looked at mental health issues through a gender-specific lens and sought to “inspire, educate and empower women to take charge of their mental health and cultivate resilience and well-being,” according to the organization’s website. At the event, the women shared their personal experiences, as well as discussing studies on mental health topics such as living with bipolar disorder, the impact of displacement on mental health and the role of hormones in mental health.
Sarah Hansell: How do you think your photo project helps subvert stigma about mental health in communities of color?
Dior Vargas: I think it’s helpful because it gave people an opportunity to really think about their experience with mental illness, to see other people that looked like them and find a point of relation.
For example, if someone wrote on their sign, “I have seen therapists and they weren’t understanding of my identity or my culture and it made it hard to go back and it didn’t make my experience fulfilling,” to be able to see that and say, “Oh my God, I went through the same thing.”
It made people feel like they weren’t alone, both the people who were in the project and also people who just happened to see the project, who used the link to discuss these issues online and also to discuss the issues with friends and, I think even more importantly, their family members. I think it was something that wasn’t really discussed, especially given the idea that mental illness was seen as a White person thing. So being able to show that link to their family members and say, “Hey, we may think that it’s a White person thing, but there are so many people via this link that can say otherwise.” So it’s a way for them to start the conversation, to start thinking differently about this topic and, finally, to kind of find their voice and create their own narrative when it comes to this experience.
SH: There’s some pretty alarming statistics out there in terms of mental health and communities of color, such as Latina teens having a high rate of suicide attempts in the United States. Why do you think that rate is so high?
DV: I think there are many things at play when it comes to that. I think being a Latina — where you are kind of experiencing a border culture, where you grew up in a family that might be very traditional, very set in their cultural norms and very community- and family-oriented — and then you’re living in, let’s say, the United States, or for me, New York, it can be challenging. The United States can be very individualistic: there is this idea that you have to take care of yourself and you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. There are all these ideas when it comes to the United States that are, I think, at odds with communities of color and their cultures. Especially for the Latino community, where everything is about family and family comes first, and there’s not much room for independence. Basically, everything you do is through the context of your family. So, to be at odds with both of those cultures and wanting to be your own person and be independent — but also feeling like being independent is at the cost of you being a good family member or being a good daughter — can be really hard.
There’s also just the idea that if you’re a woman in the Latino community, there are these really strict guidelines: there are these cultural ideas and cultural norms that are placed upon you. You have to be ladylike, or you have to look a certain way, or you have to behave a certain way. There are a lot of things when it comes to appearances. If you’re not portraying yourself in the best light, it reflects on your family and your upbringing. Having all those things at play — especially when it comes to mothers and daughters — can be a very complicated relationship. It’s often the experience of women in Latina families that they may not be able to be their true selves. That really has an impact on family relationships. All of those things really impact on one’s experience and just wanting to kind of escape from that — just feeling so overwhelmed and depressed and sad and not seeing an out — I think that’s what can lead to attempted suicide.
SH: We know that lack of insurance and language issues are barriers that prevent communities of color from accessing mental health services. What other barriers do you see, or have you yourself experienced, when it comes to accessing services or support for mental health for members of communities of color?
DV: It’s one thing to not have access to insurance to get the care you need. But then there are some individuals who do have access, in that they’re able to make an appointment, but what happens during that appointment? I mentioned an example about going to a therapist and not getting adequate care in the sense that, for the whole session, you end up talking about your culture as a way to educate the therapist so they can treat you, when really that’s something a therapist should be doing on their own.
I think also racism can be a huge part of it… specifically for African-Americans. Because of racism, health professionals are more likely to more severely diagnose them because of their idea of, let’s say, African-American men being violent. Racial bias can really affect how professionals treat their patients.
Also, there’s societal stigma, and community and family stigma. [When it comes to] the idea of seeking help, a lot of times people see it as a sign of weakness: If you can’t take care of your own issue, then you need help and people see therapy as complaining to someone. There are a lot of ideas that are behind therapy where they think if you can’t solve your own problems, you’re weak and you should keep those issues at home and not talk to a complete stranger.
And then things like immigration status come into play. A lot of people are undocumented. They’re afraid if they do seek the help that they really need, they’ll be deported. There are so many things at play that prevent people from getting the help they need before they even go to the doctor’s office.
SH: There are also some pretty alarming statistics for women in general, such as women being much more likely than men to experience depression. What comes to mind as to what can be done differently to protect and support young women, especially young women of color?
DV: [I’m thinking about] domestic violence and how that has an impact on a woman’s health. I’m also thinking about societal norms and how women are supposed to behave and how they might feel trapped [in terms of the fact that] they are in this very narrow “box” of how they should be. In terms of how to address that, there needs to be better support of women.
There needs to be a change in the way people think about women and mental health. A lot of times people will dismiss women and say that they’re crazy or they’re dramatic. Basically, such women just feel shut down. If they’re automatically pigeonholed into this idea that they are emotional and that their emotions take over things in a negative way, it’s hard for them to feel like their needs are being respected or taken seriously. I think there need to be multiple forms of support in order for women to be able to express those feelings.
Courtesy of Street Roots / INSP.
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