People of Color and Mental Illness: An In-Depth Interview with Dior Vargas
By Kimberly Neil--I had the pleasure of interviewing Dior Vargas, a native New Yorker, Latina, feminist, and mental health activist. Dior is a Smith college alumna, writer, and all around amazing person.
Kimberly Neil: Hi! Okay, so can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Dior Vargas: I’m a Latina feminist mental health activist. I’ve been an activist for years, but more recently I’ve been focusing on mental health. It’s something that I personally deal with and I feel like I could use my time better by working on a cause that can have a better effect on others. I know a lot of other advocates are coming from a place where they have [other credentials] that I may not have, but I think that my personal experience can give a different outlook on the issue.
KN: What drew you to this cause in particular and what were the first experiences that you had with this specific cause?
DV: So I have a close group of friends – I speak to them pretty much on a daily basis. We haven’t been friends for that long, but in the early stages of our friendship I had dinner with two of them and it was one of those nights where you just start talking about your experience and I felt like we got very close, very quickly. We ended up sharing our personal experiences with each other and that validated the work I wanted to do. I felt like that was the first time where I was in a conversation where other people were being open and honest about that experience. The fact that we were having this conversation really meant a lot to me. So that was kind of like the impetus for me to focus more on mental health for my activism. From there everything became more apparent to me in terms of mental health. I was searching for articles and stuff like that to learn more about mental health and how it impacts communities I’m part of – specifically people of color. I noticed that when it came to representation of mental illness and when celebrities and people from history were [connected with] representation, they were always overwhelmingly white. I felt kind of like there was a lightbulb, like that makes sense, of course I never saw people who looked like me represented and it was mainly white women so I felt very alone in my struggle.
KN: Why do you think it is so difficult for people of color in particular to have the space to address mental illness?
DV: I think it’s really hard for us as a culture to talk about mental illness because it isn’t really something that we as a people do. I think that finding the time to deal with mental illness is a privilege for some people. For example, a single mother might have to focus on getting a job and putting food on the table. It’s kind of this martyrdom in some ways where it’s like “I don’t have the time to take care of myself, I have to take care of others.” Overall it’s not discussed in our culture so it’s hard for one person to prioritize it. We’re always trying to survive and strive for better things. The lack of self-care is very detrimental to us as a society, specifically for people of color.
KN: Once you’re conscious of something it’s kind of hard to turn that off. When your culture or your community is focused on other things sometimes it’s easier for your siblings, parents, or even your friends to not acknowledge there may be a problem. Once they bring it up you have to deal with it, but as you said there are so many other responsibilities that come with that identity that get in the way of saying “I need help.”
DV: Right, right.
KN: That’s very interesting. In your Huffington Post article you said, “The advocacy that is needed to heal our community is different.” Other than representation and safe spaces such as support groups for people of color, do you have any ideas about how this can be accomplished?
DV: I’ve come across a lot of times when bringing up multiculturalism in mental health where people will tell me they have resources in other languages. I’ve been wanting to figure out another phrase for this… but it’s kind of half-ass. It’s very “What more do you want me to do?” Not the complete amount of energy that should be put on the issue. That’s not cognizant of people with different [non-English speaking] cultural identities. Growing up in a household with a single parent or a working class environment you don’t have the time. Having someone who understands the idiosyncrasies of a different culture is extremely important because I think mental health professionals can easily dismiss what is important to your life and who you are as a person. In terms of having this border culture of trying to say close to your family and fulfilling those ideals but also wanting to be independent and meeting this lifestyle society feels you should live up to – it’s difficult. With that knowledge mental health professionals could give better care to their patients.
KN: Totally. In some families of color it’s very difficult to accomplish anything in terms of getting better because of cultural beliefs and customs. Do you have any advice for someone that may not know how to approach their parents or other family members to start talking about how they think they may need some type of outside support?
DV: I think that maybe opening the conversation – let’s say you have depression – it’s hard to bring that up. Maybe finding a common ground with your family member(s) or friend(s) that may not want to talk about this, by making it about them could build a connection between you two. So, if it were my mom I would ask, “When you were younger did you feel like you were being left out in any way? How did you feel growing up?” Get into their past and get into the part of them where they relate.
KN: Sometimes your relationship with your relatives is more formal. What about advice for friends? Someone that is your age, where it’s not as risky?
DV: In some form, I think you could do the same thing I suggested for family members. With some of my older friends [from college] it didn’t work out, it was too overwhelming for them. With some of my friends now, they’ve been more understanding. I can be very open and say, “Hey, I’m having a really tough day. I feel this way and I need to talk to you.” So, I think in some way telling them this is what I’m experiencing and I want to be aware of how this might affect you but I consider you as a friend could work. Just try to figure out what kind of friendship it is because there are some where you can speak to them on a deeper level.
KN: So maybe be more candid if someone is your friend and you feel like it’s a stable enough relationship to bring it up?
DV: Right. You want to be understanding of them, too. It’s like a two way street. It’s hard when you feel like you need to vent but that has an effect on other people.
KN: Completely. Since Proud2bme is part of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) which is one facet of mental illness, my next two questions focus on that. Other mental illness such as depression and anxiety often go hand in hand with eating disorders. Food and family have a lot to do with obligations in households of color, wouldn’t you agree?
DV: Yes. Absolutely.
KN: What do you think that means in terms of how an eating disorder might manifest differently for a person of color as opposed to someone who fits the stereotype of a disordered person that is commonly shown in the media?
DV: Right, I personally have felt growing up that you have to eat everything. Again, it’s that obligation [to your family] in some form that there is a sense of respect in that situation. It’s definitely different. Anything that you do, anything that goes on in your family’s life – you know, pray to God, or worrying about putting food on the table… food is so important. If you don’t eat it, it’s kind of a sign of disrespect because all of the work they did to even place it in front of you. So it’s not always as simple as “I don’t want to eat it” if you’ve seen the struggle your loved one has gone through to provide that food for you. It can feel like you aren’t being a good daughter, a good child. It’s multifaceted.
KN: Can you think of any red flags that someone might notice about themselves or family members in a household of color? They might have disordered eating habits that could manifest into a full blown eating disorder. Maybe something that would signal that before it happens?
DV: I remember growing up, there were times, um, when I used to hide food in my room. I didn’t want my mom to know that I was eating more than she made. (laughs) So I think that’s kind of one sign… finding food in places where it might not necessarily belong. Even in terms of depression, when it comes to binge eating and eating more than what marks the full stage of eating. Even isolation, I think, is a sign. Maybe defensiveness could be one. You could be defensive if you’re feeling attacked. I know growing up I gained a significant amount of weight in one year. I was binge eating, I was really depressed. So personally, that’s always a red flag.
KN: That makes a lot of sense. I can relate to all of that. What about body image and the implications of how people of color are hypersexualized in society? Also I think there’s an assumption – specifically with Latinos and African Americans – that there is a pride that comes with being “thick.” People assume that’s the body type or aesthetic that everyone aspires to. How do you think that plays into eating disorder and also depression? If you lose weight there can be a backlash for that sometimes.
DV: Right, there’s a specific space you can fit in. It’s great to be thick and curvy but you can’t get too big or lose too much weight. I don’t know what word to use but you can’t really move between that thin line…no pun intended. In any culture there’s always a specific ideal.
KN: People might assume that because you’re a person of color being thick is better so you get it from both sides if you’re trying to fit into a certain body image ideal in the western world, that one thing. At home, though, if you lose your curves that can create drama. It’s all very possible.
DV: Yeah. Sometimes in Latino households there’s the Spanish term “gordita” which is a term in endearment but I feel like it has always been something that has bothered me. It was like: I’m a “good fat” to you in the four walls of this household but once I go outside, it’s a different story.
KN: Wow. Yes. I feel like a lot of times when it comes to going to a doctor for a physical for school, for example, sometimes it’s harder to catch a person with an eating disorder. If you’re naturally very curvy, even if you lose a significant amount of weight you still might appear to be curvy [read: “healthy”] based on certain standards.
KN: I feel like sometimes doctors don’t even look at a person and see that as a problem. As a patient, if you don’t actually say, “Hey, I think this is wrong,” they wouldn’t even think to check labs or anything. That can be very discriminatory. I was wondering if you have heard of any other types of blatant discriminationtowards a person of color seeking treatment.
DV: The first thing I thought about – and again, this is very related to food and what I was talking about earlier – people don’t think that people of color experience eating disorders. Food is such a big part of the culture. It doesn’t seem possible to have someone spend so much time and money on food and then [for example] throw it up. But it’s not that simple. If we are pigeonholed into being thugs, sluts, welfare queens… it takes away from real issues.
KN: Do you know that iPhone emoji? The two hands in the air? That’s me right now.
KN: This is all very accurate!
DV: Right. In terms of seeking therapy there is a WASP (White Anglo-Saxton Protestant) stereotype associated with that action. Having time to talk about your issues conflicts with religious beliefs, or the idea that your family knows you more than a therapist who is an outsider. Therapists are [stereotypically] seen as white men, and there’s a psychiatric view of getting medication and white walls and white gowns that you wear in the doctor’s office. People view it as something that is very dry and people will be made to feel bad about seeing help and getting medication. I remember changing medications all the time and my mom freaked out like, “What is this going to do to you? Why are they giving all these pills to you?” I ended up on Prozac and that was represented a certain way in the media. There is a misconception about antidepressants and feeling like you’re trying to escape by taking medication. Self-care, I think, is very low when it comes to people of color, because like I said before, we [frequently] don’t have time for that. It can feel very selfish to care for yourself. We need to realize as a culture that you can’t put food on the table or care for your children or parents unless you care for yourself first.
KN: I think that’s so important. Also, maybe you can relate to this because you went to Smith. If you happen to be someone in the family that goes to a great college and you have those opportunities, it can feel very, um, “How dare you mess this up by having this problem?”
DV: When I went away to school my mom was very proud I was doing that with my life – but I felt there was also a form of resentment. It wasn’t because she was trying to be negative. She just didn’t want me to leave home. That was when I was actively going to a therapist and taking medication. It was a lot. My mom felt like my school was brainwashing me – kind of like “You’re going to an all-women’s college now. Are you gay? Are you in a cult?
KN: (laughs) Yes! I think my family feels the same way sometimes about me being at Mount Holyoke.
DV: When it comes to medication especially it can seem like you’re drifting away from the way you were brought up. It’s so hard. I think I pushed myself to be a successful person because I wanted to return the favor but there was a sort of separation anxiety combined with almost becoming another person.
KN: I think sometimes depression can come out in the environment of a liberal arts college. A lot of people of color come to college with the issues but haven’t had the chance to speak out about them beforehand and the environment – especially in New England – can be very alienating. Suddenly you’re away from home and no matter what your relationship is like with your family, you don’t have them in front of you. There’s a sense of shame in speaking out about it because you think these are “white girl” problems or your parents may react like you just said with the whole “Are you in a cult? What is that school doing to you? Now you have depression, after we sent you to this school?”
DV: Right, exactly.
KN: It’s very complex.
DV: I felt like everything came to a head when I went to college because I was away from my family and I didn’t know anyone there. Northampton is very small and I’m from New York. It’s less diverse, your support system is missing, and sometimes you’re forced to take care of yourself because you have a lot more time to yourself.
KN: I’m so into what you’re saying. I agree completely. Stereotypes of people of color are harmful, especially in a college community. Once you get out of your house you have situations where there is pressure to seem put together – like a strong Latina or black woman. People around you might not notice that you’re having a problem so it’s harmful from both sides because you don’t feel like you can speak out, while other people are oblivious to the fact that you might be going through exactly the same issue as them. That’s where representation comes into play. Speaking of that, I wanted to know more about your People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project.
DV: I think any stereotype is harmful because you’re told to fit a mold and if you don’t, you’re seen as less than. The model minority stereotype is also harmful because it’s entirely based on how others see you and what you can accomplish. In terms of representation, I never put two and two together, but yeah. If there’s no representation of people of color then their stereotype must be that they don’t deal with mental illness. That’s why I really wanted to give people a space where they could say that they have a mental illness and get away from the shame of it. It’s nice to see humanization of the illness. When it comes to the culture, it’s very based on statistics. I’m digressing in some form, but when it comes to oppression I feel like people are always asking for statistics.
DV: They always need some type of…
KN: Tangible proof! Then and there.
DV: I remember being part of some type of group and um, I’m kind of in the middle of it right now but basically there were slightly offensive stereotypes involved and I said I took issue with it. Another woman told me she could not get her head around why I felt that way. I shouldn’t need a spreadsheet or numbers to tell someone they are invalidating my experience. It’s a form of violence. It’s important for us to focus on people who are actually dealing with illness. Consider Humans of New York. A certain kind of empathy comes with seeing a face and reading their story. You can relate, it resonates with you. I just want people to see the human.
KN: You see a person instead of statistics. They are important for research but they shouldn’t dictate how a person that is struggling receives treatment. It’s still a person that’s struggling.
DV: I don’t want what I deal with to be used against me, and I don’t want that to happen to other people. The more we talk about it, hopefully it will help with removing the stigma and making it more of a day to day conversation where it’s not taboo anymore.
KN: I checked out your website and all of your writing is very good, but the “Sigue y Sigue” piece stood out. I really like the line “if we spoke to others like we spoke to ourselves, we would have no friends.” What advice would you give to any of the girls out there that can relate?
DV: In therapy – and my therapist is a Latina – which allows me to work with someone that understand the culture in general. She told me to be patient with myself, and I’m used to this relationship with myself where I put myself down. If I do something wrong, it’s my fault. I’m hoping people will be more patient with themselves. Talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend. It’s hard, but I think it’s extremely important to do so.
KN: If you could travel back in time and tell your younger self something, what would you say? What age would you be?
DV: There are multiple ages where I would speak to myself. I think it would be a younger, younger self. 6 to 12 years old. That was the hardest time for me, I was very vulnerable. I was vulnerable after that, I feel vulnerable now… but that was the time where I feel like if I had gotten more support in terms of therapy it would have made a difference. Even in terms of body image, I always felt short, fat, and ugly. I was always made fun of for being short… and I think what I would want to tell myself at that point, during that range is that like, “Eff those people. There’s gonna be so much more that you can do and you cannot afford to let other people stop you or make you feel worse.” […] “This is hard. I would say you are gonna be a kick-ass person. You are…” I’m getting emotional now, sorry. “You are going to have an effect on people and you are going to help others. It’s gonna be fine.” I’m sorry.
KN: Don’t apologize. It’s very hard to see your own worth when you haven’t been around long enough to see how you can have an impact on other people. I think with a lot of mental illness suicidality is a risk. You may not be actively suicidal but having an eating disorder or having impulsive behavior because you’re depressed… it’s a risk. It’s literally life threatening. When you’re in the depths of mental illness you aren’t necessarily thinking of how you can help people in the future. For anyone suffering, that’s not your fault. That’s just how it is. I think that’s important advice.
DV: Yeah, yeah. What you’re dealing with is more than yourself and it’s bigger than you. You can keep on moving forward and it will be beneficial to others. You can help other people and maybe give them a reason to keep on going.
KN: Do you have any advice for teenagers or young adults who want to become activists or share their story?
DV: At school, high school or college, take part in different organizations and get teambuilding skills. Learn how to work with other people and find that passion within you to direct towards change. You want to work on something that allows you to fully engage and take part in that mission. See what people you look up to are doing and how you can take part. I think that activists are more than happy to be a mentor – I would – to someone that wants to start. Look for books and online resources.
KN: That’s awesome. My final questions, and I’m sure you know what intersectionality means but I’ll say it because I didn’t always know and it changed how I see things when I learned – The definition I found is “the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.” What does intersectionality mean to you? If you could create a utopia where the stigma surrounding mental illness magically disappeared, what would that utopia look like?
DV: If there is no intersectionality in feminism, it’s not even worth it. Even going back into how I was saying that people of color have multidimensional experiences: you can’t just be a woman, or a black person. You’re multiple things grouped together. I think it’s important for people to learn about it and make it a part of their life.
KN: Feminism is a big thing on women’s college campuses, but there’s one type of feminism that tends to be preferential. I believe this parallels mental health. It’s essential to realize that more than one group of people benefit from awareness.
DV: There’s so much more to a person than race, gender, or diagnosis.
KN: Finally, if you could create a utopia where the stigma surrounding mental illness magically disappeared, what would that utopia look like?
DV: Self-care would be at the top of everyone’s list. It would be part of every educational system, like guidance counselor sessions or another way to make it part of the curriculum. It would be maintained in school and the workplace. It would be alright for people to say they’re feeling down. People wouldn’t be judged or ostracized for asking for help. I think the world is so based on the end result. People need to feel they are being cared for in every aspect of their life. That would be awesome.
About this blogger: Kimberly is a Sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, a woman's liberal arts college in South Hadley, MA. She is currently studying Anthropology but planning to switch to a self-designed major. Her interests include ballet, performing, choreographing, writing, binge watching documentaries on Netflix, and taking too many pictures with friends. She plans to pursue grad school (hopefully overseas!) and research mental illness, specifically eating disorders. She also hopes to one day work to change laws around mental health in the United States and promote the idea that women around the world should have autonomy over their bodies.