Activist Dior Vargas Wants to Center People of Color in the Mental Health Conversation

In Depth

Mental health issues are not the sole domain of white people. Although that should be obvious, the media visibility afforded to communities of color around these issues—or lack thereof—doesn’t always reflect that. But Latina activist Dior Vargas has made it her mission to make people of color dealing with mental health issues more visible. Her voice is an important one as the mental health conversation moves forward in communities of color.

Vargas, 31, grew up in East Harlem, New York. From the age of 14, she’s been diagnosed with various mental health problems including major depression, anxiety, and borderline personality disorder. In 2014, wanting to add further focus to her activism and knowledge to her internal biblioteca, Vargas dug through the internet in search of accurate visual depictions of the multifarious, layered experience of mental health she well knows—but to little avail. Instead, she said, she was met with images of people who “nine times out of ten were white” in historical images, photographs of white women, or both.

In response, Vargas created the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project, in which people submit photos of themselves holding a sign describing whatever part of their battle they feel comfortable sharing. With calls-to-action on various social media pages and listservs, and gleaning attention from various media outlets, Vargas created a space for hundreds of people to connect and share experiences. In 2015, she decided to compile a book of photo essays based on that project. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Vargas embarked on a three-year journey of getting from ideation to printing.

Vargas’s personal experience, fueled with passion and a background in publishing, led to the publication of The Color of My Mind, a photo essay that shares bite-sized excerpts of the stories of 34 individuals who are living with mental health issues. The book is out now. We met at a coffee shop in Long Island City to talk through the process of making her book and the importance of community. Our lightly edited conversation and excerpts from the book (available to order here) are below.

JEZEBEL: Did you expect there to be a massive influx of photo submissions when the online photo project kicked off? Or, rather, did you have any expectations?

Dior Vargas: I did not. I was hoping that it would be well received. But beyond that I really had no idea. I thought “This is my first project, let’s see how it goes.” I didn’t know this would be my hallmark—like what I’m known for type of thing, so I’m very happy that people saw it as an opportunity to share their experiences and talk about the subject more.

Are you still accepting entries there?

Yeah, I definitely want to have a space for people to go to and see people that look like them and even use that as a way to start the conversation with their family. And so for me it’s ongoing because, let’s say someone wasn’t ready when the project first started. Four years later, maybe they’re at a better place or a place in their recovery where they feel more comfortable doing that. There’s no end date to recovery, and neither is there one for this the project.

Tell me about the selection process for the book. How did you choose who you would feature, and why wasn’t your own name on the list?

When I showed my family the book they were like “Why isn’t your face on the cover of the book?”

Being a woman of color impacts how we even receive care, if we receive it in the first place.

Classic Hispanic family.

Right? I just laughed, because it’s not about me.

So, basically the photographer and I had on location and in-studio photo shoots. Everyone who was able to meet with me at the time we scheduled got in the book—and that was 34 individuals. I knew I needed to get people with mental illnesses, but they didn’t have to be diagnosed, because I feel like it’s a reality for these communities that we don’t go to the doctor and we’re less likely to get diagnosed. So, I wasn’t going to request something that isn’t easy or realistic for the participants. That would’ve been kind of dumb. Being a woman of color impacts how we even receive care, if we receive it in the first place. So I didn’t want that to be a detractor. I wanted to get people of all different ages, different races and ethnicities, different genders and sexualities. I wanted it to be diverse in every sense of the word. I got men and women, I got trans individuals, I got a person with a learning disorder. The only group I wanted that I wasn’t able to get were older people. It mainly ranged from 20- to 40-year-olds.

Tell me about the decision to include excerpts of people’s stories in their own words, and the decision to only include their first names and keep it rather personal.

I first recorded conversations with each subject, and then pulled out whatever stood out to me or seemed representative of their experiences. I wanted to be less clinical, and more focused on people’s experiences, and their thoughts on what it’s like to have these identities. I also wanted to make it positive, but not cheery either. I wanted it to be realistic and acknowledge the resilience of the strength of people, and show the diversity of how we feel at times. Acknowledging the fact that they’re experiencing a lot of pain, and show how they’re moving through it. I wanted to provide a sense of hope, and chose to keep it on first name basis to make it personal and intimate. Overall, in terms of the project and the book, I want people to be in charge of their own narrative.

Right. So you’re pulling from the middle of their stories, not the end. I think a lot of the time, people share their stories from an after-the-fact point of view. “Here’s how I survived XYZ.” This is not that.

Right, I wanted to be in the present moment and get the full humanity of the person as much as I could.

People who are typically celebrated for speaking openly about their mental health struggles tend to be white. Why do you think people of color aren’t necessarily as vocal?

Shame and guilt. Our community in general is othered constantly. At least in my experience, which I feel a lot of people can relate to. I identify as queer. And, there are a lot of identities that we have that people use against us. I have enough of these things against me in terms of society and how it treats people. I didn’t want to add another one. That’s one part of it. And then there’s the guilt. So many times I’ve heard that people came out about their experiences and their families are like “Why are you sharing all this information? That’s not anyone’s business.” So, I think that there’s a community and familial reasoning behind that. You don’t want to embarrass your family because they think that that’s somehow a reflection of how they raised you, or that it’s their fault. And then I think people are afraid of being discriminated against at work. If their jobs find out that they have a mental illness, will they treat them differently? Will they fire them? So, there’s a lot at risk. I think that it has gotten better. There are more celebrities of color who are coming out about their issues, so now is a time they are being celebrated. But years ago that wasn’t the case. Their careers would’ve been over. It’s really complicated and unfair.

I asked people, “What do you love about yourself?” And what overwhelmingly came out was, “I love that I’m still here.”

Two of the stories that really stood out to me were Bianca’s and Maria’s. They are Latina and Asian respectively. Statistically, those ethnicities are two of the most under-treated and least vocal in terms of reported cases. Is there a particular story that you particularly connected with of the bunch?

Wow, yeah—I connected with them in different ways. Trevor—he’s the one with the two-page spread on his bed in his apartment. He was so much fun. And I saw through his humor how much pain he’s going through, so, it was having those one-on-one conversations and seeing places that meant a lot them. Cynthia, too. There was a part of her story that was hard for me to omit, but I ultimately had to because there wasn’t enough space. She talked about her experience with wildlife and connection to science. We interviewed her at the Museum of Natural History and she told us about how she connected with orangutans because they kept to themselves. Also, Nicole. She’s a veteran and is one of those people who are so wise and have these little one liners that just blow you away. There were also a few people who had borderline personality disorder and around that time I had just been given that additional diagnosis, and was struggling with that… I still am. But to be able to kind of have that space where I was like “OK, what was your experience like and how do you experience this?” made it kind of my own exploration as well.

Do you feel like a part of you healed in the process?

I mean I never doubted the strength of all of these individuals, and I always knew that this project was always bigger than just me but I think that seeing all these different people from different walks of life really solidified it. I asked people, “What do you love about yourself?” And what overwhelmingly came out was, “I love that I’m still here.” And I was always like shit, oh my god. Because that’s what it is to live wondering who you are and why you’re here. It’s funny because I wanted to make other people feel like they weren’t alone but it ended up helping me in the process.

Do you feel an innate responsibility to help other people, and do you think people of color will ever be at a point as a community where we can be sort of focused on our own experiences without that added pressure or guilt?

I feel like it not only was a response to a lot of struggles and discrimination, but I think it’s also a strength and an attribute of our communities, and specifically Latinx in general of working together and supporting one another. At least for most of us. So, I feel like it’s an attribute of ours that I think we should hold on to with pride and continue to do whatever that future looks like. Even if we don’t have to continually fight. For me personally it’s a lifelong responsibility of mine to do this. Because if I’m living, then I need to do something. And, I’m not saying that everybody needs to feel that way. But for me, I need to make this count. So I feel like we should still do that service to our community but hopefully it will be because we want to continue being connected with one another, and staying close to our communities and families—not as a survival mechanism but as a way to celebrate each other and enjoy each other.

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