Portrait after portrait in Dior Vargas’ People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project showcases a person, their name and a statement written on a piece of paper. There is beauty in the diversity represented. In some photographs folks are smiling. In others they pose seriously, but they all hold up a sign saying, “I have a mental illness…” According to Dior, a queer Latina mental health activist, the photo project stemmed from a lack of media representation of people of color and mental illness. A book of the photo project will be out next month. Read on to learn more about Dior’s inspiration and lessons learned.
Q. Think back to when you were 14 years old—what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
A. I wish I knew that the situation I was in wasn’t always going to be that way. That I wouldn’t always feel the same type of pain and loneliness. This is not to say that I no longer feel these things but I always felt like things were always going to be this awful. I also wish I was kinder and more compassionate with myself. I still have a lot of work to do on that front. It’s a never-ending learning experience.
Q. How have your ideas, knowledge, and understanding of mental health and wellness evolved since then?
A. So much has changed in my life and of all things, this was one of the aspects of my life that have changed drastically. I truly had no understanding of mental health, how to express it in any language, and it wasn’t something that was discussed in my family. I’m a lot more knowledgeable about mental health, recovery, health insurance, Medicaid, etc and I had so many years of experiences to learn from.
Q. What inspired you to create the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project?
A. I’ve been an activist since I was in high school and I organized around so many different issues but I never covered mental health and it was something that was so much a part of me. In 2014, after about a year of volunteering with different mental health organizations and sharing my story of living with mental illness, I decided I wanted to do something more, something that would involve even more people where a conversation could be had on a larger scale. I researched mental health online and realized that there was a lack of media representation of people of color who lived with mental health conditions. If no one knew otherwise and like I had been told as a young girl, mental illness was a white person thing. So I wanted to create a space where people of color could share their stories and humanize what it means and how it appears to others to live with mental illness. I think it’s imperative to highlight the unique experiences of communities of color.
Q. Your mental health advocacy dates back to when you were a college student. What advice would you share with Peer Health Exchange college volunteers—or anyone working towards health equity—to encourage mental health awareness?
A. Actually, I didn’t do any mental health advocacy during college. I didn’t even think it was something I could work on. I also saw myself as very separate from the disability community which is a community that I’ve become very much connected to and feel close to as well. In general, I would say to talk about these issues in as many places as you can. The more we talk about it and in a way that’s not ableist or stigmatizing, the more comfortable and open people will be with it.
Dior Vargas is a Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist. She is the creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project, a response to the invisibility of people of color in the media representation of mental illness. She goes around the country giving keynotes, hosting workshops, and speaking on panels. Her work and insight have been covered in media outlets such as Forbes, Newsweek, NBC News Latino, and The Guardian. Dior is the recipient of numerous awards including, The White House Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy Across Generations. She has a B.A. in the Study of Women and Gender from Smith College and has an M.S. in Publishing from Pace University. She is working towards a Master of Public Health at NYU. She is a native New Yorker and currently lives in New York City.