The Feministing Five: Mental Health Activist Dior Vargas

Latina feminist mental health activist Dior Vargas 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 tours the country giving keynotes, hosting workshops, and speaking on panels about the importance of a racial lens in mental health advocacy. Her work and insight have been featured in 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.

For this week’s Feministing Five, I had the pleasure of catching up with Dior about the publication of her new book, the whitewashing of mental health, and how she became a champion of intersectional advocacy. Catch Dior on Twitter @DiorVargas and snag a copy of The Color of My Mind here!

Senti Sojwal: You’re the editor of the photo essay collection The Color of My Mind: Mental Health Narratives from People of Color, which was published earlier this year. Congrats! Can you tell our readers about this project and what you hope it can do for the national conversation about mental health and wellness?

Dior Vargas: This book is based on the online project, the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project, which started in September 2014. I saw that the media representation of mental illness was extraordinarily whitewashed and didn’t show the full, varied experience of the condition. While the online version of the project reached a lot of people, I wanted to make it more accessible to communities of color by having it in book form. When the project first started there wasn’t the conversation that’s happening now. A lot of people used the project to share their stories and show their friends, family, and community that mental illness is not a “white person thing.” It showed the full humanity of people of color who live with mental health conditions and explained how these intersecting identities impact how we experience the world, day to day life and the health care system. I’m hoping that this book does the same work by facilitating these conversations and by being available in community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, behavioral health organizations, doctor’s offices and counseling centers in colleges all over the country and hopefully the world as well.

Sojwal: How did you become a mental health advocate? What are your biggest goals as a mental health advocate today?

Vargas: I became a mental health advocate in 2013 when I started sharing my personal story as someone who lives with mental illnesses, and who is also a suicide attempt survivor. I started volunteering with various mental health organizations which gave me more opportunities to share my story. I also became a crisis counselor and a co-facilitator of a young adult support group. My project helped me move my work forward by being invited to speak on panels, deliver keynotes, and facilitate workshops at colleges, universities, organizations, and conferences. My biggest goals are to help create a mental health care system that is accessible to everyone. It is one that is person-centered, recovery-oriented, trauma-informed, and put it into practice.

Sojwal: What particular barriers to care do people of color face when it comes to mental health?

Vargas: There are several barriers such as lack of health insurance. It costs too much to get services because you have to pay out of pocket. A sliding scale can help but not often enough. Another barrier is the lack of mental health professionals of color. Being able to get support from someone who looks like you can make the process easier and you don’t feel like you have to code switch in therapy. Also, there are not many culturally sensitive mental health professionals. This can make one’s session more of a lesson and places the emotional labor on the consumer when they are there to get help for themselves. Undocumented status also prevents people from getting the mental health support they need. Another barrier is societal stigma and stigma in their own communities, families, and households.

Sojwal: What do you wish more people knew about mental health and self-care?

Vargas: I wish people knew that mental health is something that we all have. We all have a stake in making mental health a frequent topic of discussion. One in four people lives with a mental health condition. This should matter to all of us. Self-care needs to be understood as something more than pampering yourself like getting a massage or getting your nails done. Self-care is also about hard work. It’s about taking steps to improve your quality of life. Therapy is a form of self-care. It’s making consistent steps towards your self-improvement.

Sojwal: What helps you stay grounded, focused, and happy?

Vargas: I think focusing on wanting to make a difference in people’s lives is what helps me keep going. I want to have left the world a better place than when I entered it. That is what drives me. 

Photo credit: Shaul Schwartz


Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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