Talking with Dior Vargas

This year, Dior Vargas created the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project. “This is NOT a white person’s disease,” she announced. “This is a reality for so many people in our community.”

Since then, she has posted people’s selfies with signs on which they’re written their names and diagnoses or backgrounds. She’d like to take the project in a few different directions, such as a published anthology of people’s stories and a hub for advocacy and targeted resources.

Here, Dior talks about how her young life of activism turned toward a very personal issue, and how she surprised herself by winning her mother’s support for it in the end.

Who are you? Please introduce yourself.

So, my name is Dior Vargas. I grew up in New York City, and I’m a Latina feminist mental health activist.

How get you get to be that?

So, I’ve been an activist for a while. I think it really started in college. I was becoming more involved in different organizations. I went to Smith College. So, I always wanted to fight for women’s rights, and that’s where I started doing activist work. I graduated from Smith and got involved in Occupy, more in the women’s caucus, so … that was interesting. We held the first feminist general assembly, talking about issues important to us. The last thing that I did as part of that group was have another one focused more on people of color. It’s funny, because back then I don’t think mental illness was part of the discussion, but now that I think about it, how could I have missed it? But it was more class rights, reproductive issues. I didn’t focus on mental illness or mental health.

From there, I was part of boards, organizations, until just recently this year. I don’t know why, and I would like to know the moment, this thing I’ve been dealing with all my life, I wanted to focus my energy on. Like, why not? I suffer from this, but I never feel completely comfortable expressing this, especially with family. The way my culture deals with it, communities of color in general. I can use my personal experience to help others. I hope to change the conversation, open up communication with families, show that mental illness does not only affect people who whine, quote-unquote, about problems to their therapist. That it’s something very serious, an issue that needs to be addressed. I think people view it as more of a weakness. And I’m trying to dispel that myth. So yeah, ever since then, I’ve been focused on talking about my experience. I don’t have an MSW, PhD, a credential like that, but coming from a place with personal experience is another way to help people. If I can say my experience, what I have, is what other people have, I can be relatable. People will feel more confiding in me with their issues. I’ve just been talking more about mental health, how it affects people of color, and how it needs to be prioritized in the community. and this project that I started.

So, I can talk more about that. I noticed that a lot of the times I spoke about mental illness, it was very whitewashed, it only showed white people. Also, when lists on HuffPost would show these celebrities who have mental illness, maybe nine out of 10 were white. It comes down to representation. If you don’t see yourself in it, you think you’re not invested in it. I had no idea there were others. If I had known that, it would have given me some type of ease, a better understanding to deal with issues. I could go to someone and understand what I was going through. Philosophy created an initiative, and any purchases from that line are for mental health, mental illness research. I thought, “Great,” but when I saw the ad, the video talking about the new line, they featured three women, again, all of them white. Another example of how we’re not represented. If we don’t see ourselves reflected in something, we’re viewed as other in society. The “othering” of mental illness means we’re not part of that as well. We can’t find a place where we can be included. “Oh, that’s a very white person thing. We’re not a weak culture because we’re always fighting to survive.” I thought if there’s some way to change that media landscape …

So I started asking people to submit. At first I was not getting very much, which was expected, because of stigma. Coming out about the experience, you’re afraid you will be judged, you’ll be found out by someone at your job, afraid of the judgement, also of the airing dirty laundry and embarrassing your family. So many implications. There could be abuse in the family, you could open up that part of your family. So I created a video of me just talking about my project, how I have depression. It’s interesting because I had never really said it out loud to a camera before. The first thing I said was, “My name is Dior Vargas, and I have depression.” It was hard when I recorded the beginning because I started to cry. It was still very, I don’t know how to explain it. I had never put my full name to the disease. Just that alone, saying that sentence, sparked the emotion.

After that, I was again asking for submissions, and eventually people started coming through. It was really wonderful, all the notes and comments. A lot of people said, “Wow, I wish I had this when I was younger, when I was alone.” “It’s great to showcase people of color.” I’ve had responses from people in other states, they suffer from mental illness, Latina or African-American, and they felt like they couldn’t come out. Seeing these diverse individuals holding signs. I make sure they have a couple of options. They can say, “I have a mental illness,” or “My name is and I have —.” Whatever they feel comfortable doing. I mean, this is supposed to be revelatory, but not where you are forced to. That’s not the point. Yeah, I’ve just been really happy. Almost every day I’ve been getting a submission. I’m hoping more people will share this with others. It will change the way people view mental illness. Mental illness is something talked about more, and I try make sure it’s talked about more in communities that never really talk about it. I’m really looking forward to what this might lead to. I hope can work on something more writing, long-form writing, to open the conversation. I’m trying to find a way to find myself in positions where I can speak to the community, not only being online but offline and having a face-to-face thing. I want to initiate conversations. Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing, sharing as many links as possible.

I’m also thinking about writing a blog on how to find a therapist, more tailored for what is good for you. Someone who is, do you want male or female, another language besides English, who knows something about diseases like anxiety, or if you want to talk about queer identity and not be judged. There’s so much people don’t think about. I just want to open the eyes of people, to feel they’re not alone.

You said you couldn’t pinpoint the moment earlier this year when you turned in this direction?

Let me think. I guess it just got to a point where it felt like there was just no conversation about it. It was a void I could fill. It’s a daily, lifelong struggle. I have to learn how to live with it. I have to make the best of it. I have to find something to make this beneficial for other people. I don’t know about this phrase, but this is my cross to bear. If I can help others find relevance in life. I eventually want to be a role model, have a positive effect. I guess I got to a point where, “There has to be something else to this. I must share my story in some fashion and allow people to share theirs, let them release whatever they’re feeling.” As well as try to change the media landscape. I wanted to humanize the disease.

For an organization, translating something doesn’t mean you understand it. So when you ask what they’re doing for communities of color, they say, “Oh, we have this in Spanish!” Again, we grew up in a different culture. Translating it is just the surface. You have to have a serious investment in the community. If we’re not mentally well, how do we contribute? We’re contributing individuals to society. Unless we’re mentally well and accomplish all we want to accomplish … If you don’t invest in us, show you care, what is society gonna lead to? The overarching thing. It’s something that affects everyone.
Again, my personal story is very political, with a lot of overarching things going on. Living with a single parent, having an abusive father, living on welfare. Those things contribute to mental illness. I didn’t feel safe in my home, no one was listening to me. That’s why I attempted suicide. That was the only way I was able to express myself. I also one day would love to see families be more open with one another. Once you talk, and are not judgmental … I would have loved to say, “Mom, I’m depressed” and have her say, “OK, what can we do?” And not say, “Stop crying, crying is a weakness.” More like, “I want you to be well.” If I can do that for other Latinos, give them strength to go on, not that the only solution is death, that’s the best thing ever to come out of this.

What does your family think about all of this?

You know, I think as I’ve been getting older, I’ve been a lot more vocal. It’s funny, now my mom is more open to it, more understanding. When I was doing Live Through This, I didn’t want to tell her what it was about. Then at one point I was like, “Mom, it’s about me coming out about my prior suicide attempt.” I was afraid she’d say, “Why are you telling everybody?” I think when she knew I wanted to better the lives of other people, I think she saw it in a broader perspective. I’m still in shock. She was very judgmental when I was a child. She always said, “Stop being weak,” the quintessential thing people who don’t understand mental illness would say. Just because she was a single parent, trying to make ends meet. I can understand. That was her in frustration, very young. I feel the earlier we discuss self-esteem and mental health in our communities, the less of a burden, I think people think of it as. Just check in with our children and how they feel. Like brushing our teeth. “Am I OK? Do I feel isolated or judged?” That’s something extremely important. For years, I’ve been in therapy because I’d rather focus on what I needed to fix about myself or feel better about myself. If you don’t deal with it, it will kick you in the ass. Yes, you’re working out every day, but are you promoting self-care? I think people don’t value self-care as much as they should.

Have there been any stories that surprised you? The unexpected?

The only thing I can think of wasn’t startling, it was a negative response. I received an email from a Caucasian man, it was very short email. The subject line was “My mental illness, your mental illness.” The body of the email was, “Oh never mind, I’m Caucasian.” Like, “You’re excluding people. So my mental illness is not as important as yours.” And you know, in some form, I’m not saying his isn’t as important as mine, but there’s no such thing as white studies. We’ve always been an “other” that’s been added, so I’m trying to tell stories of people who feel they can’t come out. If we really want to change the way mental illness is being dealt with, we have to include everyone. You have to work around the margins. You have to make sure everyone has been included. I’m just making sure people know they aren’t a statistic. This is something I never say, but I’m proud of myself for the work I’m doing. I know others are doing it too, and I’m part of trying to change things. Years ago, I never would have come out. It’s not like I don’t have a daily struggle, because I do. It’s not like, “It’s gonna be OK.” It’s not. It’s constant work. People who have mental illness, it’s just a constant battle, but we can get through it. It’s not going to be easy, but nothing ever is. I want to normalize the conversation in some form.

You mentioned Live Through This?

So, I must have found it online somewhere. I was like, “Wow.” It had never occured to me to deal with survivors of attempted suicide. That people woke up and nothing had happened. They wanted to end their lives, and what do you do if you wake up the next day? What kind of life do people lead? I thought it was really powerful. It’s really important the work Dese’Rae is doing. She’s such an amazing person. She’s humanizing suicide, telling people that “Yes, this is who I am. I tried it. I’m still going, even though it might be a struggle every day. See what I’m trying to do with that I’ve been given.” Whenever my story comes out, I hope that will again give another perspective of the Latinos who deal with it.

How can organizations change?

I think they need to think, maybe go a step further. To get to the root of what’s going on, you have to understand these communities more. You need to know how the family dynamics are. And so I think if they were to use people of color in their discussions and not as an afterthought, if they went into communities and said, “I want to prioritize your struggle because you’re important,” if they have sincere interest enough, it would lead to more discussion. We have different life experience. You’re saying you want to be inclusive, but you’re making other stories disappear and not as important as others. You have to want it more. Or maybe you need more staff of color. I don’t want to be judgmental of these organizations. There’s just not enough people doing it.

How to change the conversation with these cultural factors involved?

I guess if I were in a family that was not as accepting, I would say, “I understand these values you hold. I’m not being disrespectful, but I want you to know that what I’m feeling is legitmate, should not be minimized, should be addressed.” We really need to dig into the issues we have. It’s very hard, I mean, having to change decades, centuries of culture and ideals, it’s very hard, so that’s a part of my work that is daunting and scary. And at times I ask, “Can I accomplish this?” There just needs to be more people of color coming out. There needs to be more communication.

Some people say we need Hollywood, celebrities to take this on. What do you think?

Not necessarily. I think people would say, “Of course they’re coming out because they have money, they have careers, they’re not losing anything.” But if you’re a single mother on welfare, you never know if you’re going to be terminated. And what next? Celebrities have resources we don’t. To some extent we can relate, but others we can’t. And so I think that more people, and I know this is a lot to ask, but people who may not be famous but just like you and me, who work for a paycheck, or paycheck to paycheck, living a life that’s relatable to us. If normal people, regular people, are coming out about that … “If she’s just like me and can share…” There’s this weight that comes off your shoulders when you come out. It’s very therapeutc and very uplifting.

What do to remove the fear of repercussions?

I think if maybe we say, “This is a safe space.” Even in that, there’s an isolation of the stories, you know? So that’s difficult. That’s a hard one. The more something is talked about, the less odd it is. I think there needs to be some sort of change in the way that workplaces deal with mental illness. I recently was laid off from a job and am applying for other ones. I noticed they ask about disabilities. On the application they ask, “Do you have a disability?” They list examples. Two are bipolar disorder and major depression. I never knew that was considered a disability. Again, you could say yes or no and they would not know what you’re talking about. It might be a step in right direction. Yeah, I just think if we make it so people feel safe, you know, “This is OK, you’re not going to lose your job for this.” I think we need to be more understanding, like, “So what? You’re still an asset to this organization.” I think that businesses need to stop being so number-crunching. I know it’s important, but if you have an investment in your employees, they likely will work harder. It will show in their work. You have to be more compassionate with these people. And so like when I had a job, on Friday night people would say, “Oh, what are you doing tonight?” I’d say, “Therapy.” There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just being more open.

These questions are hard! (Laughs.)

How old are you?

27.

Do you think being younger plays a part in being open?

I don’t believe I’d use the term “millennials,” but I think younger people are more passionate about doing something in the world. The older individuals are very about saving face, not airing one’s dirty laundry. Now we’re becoming a culture where we’re trying to fight against things detrimental to our society. I think we’re a lot more confrontational about issues important to us, more vocal, which I think is great. That’s the way things are going, and I hope it continues. Maybe I think we’re a lot more progressive, but it always changes with who you talk to. Yeah, I think it’s an age thing. But nothing against that. If it’s what you know. I think we need to get out of the comfort zone and be uncomfortable. If you’re comfortable, you’re not challenging yourself, not risking anything.

I’ve had these feelings of depression for years. I was 8 when I felt I had given up on life. It’s funny that I’m here to talk about this. I remember being in the psych ward and I was the youngest person there. I think I was 17 or 18. Again, I was being like from a different area in life.

Was there anyone who really helped you understand what was going on?

Not necessarily in mental illness or mental health, but I remember my grandmother raising me, helping, telling me that crying was not a sign of weakness. It helped me. She was like an ally. She’s a sensitive person, too. She told me it’s OK, even though my mom told me otherwise. Having that safe place was really helpful. Also having a Latino therapist is really helpful. We have a lot in common. We’re both Ecuadorian. She says, “I’m a therapist to a lot of young Latinos like yourself.” Being given that information, that there are a lot of Latinos who are going to therapy, dealing with these issues, I felt like there’s a group of people who are dealing with this. Having that information helped me and propelled me into the work I’m doing. And again, just talking about this with other Latino friends. When I would say I didn’t want to live any more, they would say, “Oh my god, me too.” That really gave me a sense of strength, a catalyst to deal with these issues. You know, I think that’s what did it for me. These Latino feminists. I don’t know how I felt this connection. I felt it was OK to explain to them what I was going through. With them, you know, telling me they felt the exact same way, it gave me a purpose: “OK, something I need to work on.” I think that was what really did it.

What’s your next big project?

I’m thinking of maybe asking people, an anthology, asking for written submissions from people or women of color, what they’re dealing with. I think there’s not enough literature on that, even though this is very powerful. This is just the beginning of the work I want to do. Again, becoming more of a person people can go to, like an advocate, where people can see me as a resource. just strengthening my work. Trying to see how I can get more involved in the community, grassroots type of work, face-to-face and personal. I don’t want to exclude anyone from this. Not everyone has internet access. Go to the place where they’re comfortable. This is my community, I walk down this block every day, and I don’t want them in any position where they don’t feel comfortable. This is just the beginning of the work I’m going to try to do. I just want to be a hub of information. I don’t want to be just telling my story, I want to tell others’ stories. Yeah. It’s a lot of work, but it’s totally worth it.

Who else are you?

Sorry, I’m self-deprecating. The first thing I thought was “unemployed.” But that’s just my sense of humor. But honestly, even though I’m outspoken, I think I’m a person who’s very hard on myself. I don’t give myself any type of leeway. There’s lot of things I need to be to be a better advocate for others. I need to practice self-care. I’m a woman who’s trying to make my family proud, trying to make a career for myself. I’m trying to do more than just one single person. I’m trying to better others’ lives. I don’t think there’s any better way to live life than to focus on others.

Any hobbies?

I like to write. I’ve been doing digital media the last couple years. I like to write poetry, I’ve been doing readings lately. I use that to discuss my work, to explain, to put it in a different medium. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

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