“It’s important to provide a space where people can be in charge of their own narratives.”
As a mental health activist and Latina feminist, Dior Vargas is spreading awareness about the challenging stigmas experienced by people of color who also suffer from mental illness.
She was listed as one of the 15 Remarkable Women of Color Who Rocked 2015 in Colorlines, and has received a number of awards, such as The White House Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy Across Generations.
Dior Vargas created the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project, which addresses the invisibility of people of color in the media in relation to the representation of persons with mental illnesses. This is the discussion that Vargas opens up to when she gives talks, hosts workshops, and speaks on panels. There are a range of barriers for reaching out and getting help for people of color, such as the financial burden of treatments and differences in the expectations of their family that comes with certain cultural backgrounds. For those reasons, it is clear to Vargas that a one-size-fits-all solution is far from reasonable.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in the Study of Women and Gender from Smith College and a Master’s in Publishing from Pace University. She is also doing a Master’s in Public Health at NYU’s College of Global Public Health. Her experience within the mental health field is already quite extensive despite her young age; she worked as a volunteer crisis counsellor for the Crisis Text Line. Besides this, she has also done internships for the former CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Gloria Feldt, and at The Feminist Press. Other former activities include membership in NAMI – NYC Metro’s Young Professionals Advisory Board and the Third Wave Legacy Council.
She grew up with her mother and sister in New York and still lives there today. “Things with my mom were never truly good”. Growing up with a young single mother, Vargas remembers how she and her sister had to deal with the mother’s issues and her dependency on the two of them.
“I think we have to be aware of the traditions and customs that people have. There are borders that people have to go against, like the borders of being in a traditional Latino family. Your family is everything. You have to always be there and put them first, versus this new assimilated life.”
Although her grandmother, mother, and she herself were born and raised in the U.S., her father and grandfather were both immigrants from Ecuador. This meant that she too spent a lot of energy on assimilating to the norms and culture surrounding her.
As a teenager, Vargas struggled with mental illness herself and attempted suicide several times. The last attempt was at age 19 after her first year in college, which had been a very tough time, because she was diagnosed with a thyroid condition and, at the same time, living away from her family for the first time, which caused a depression. She ended up in the ER after taking a lot of pills and was then sent to a psychiatric ward. “They took all my belongings and put them in the “sharps closet.” I didn’t have anything. I was really upset about that. I had to go to a window to get my medication.” Years after this incident, the battle with mental illness continues for Vargas: “I’m definitely not over this. I’m constantly trying to find reasons for why I’m still alive.”
However, she keeps pushing forward and works hard for the cause which is so close to her heart. The People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project was brought to life in 2014 as a response to the lack of diversity in the representation of mental illnesses. Providing images of people of color enables more people to identify themselves with this vulnerable group. The online photo project was made into a book, The Color of My Mind, which depicts 34 people’s mental illness experiences.
By Ida Larsen, WAVE Intern