Dior Vargas stands for a portrait on the roof of her parents’ apartmen
Dior Vargas stands for a portrait on the roof of her parents’ apartment in Chelsea. (Shaul Schwarz Verbatim/Getty Images for Be Vocal)

Growing up, Dior Vargas knew something was wrong. Every aspect of her life was difficult for her. She didn’t know what she was experiencing, but she did know that she didn’t want to feel that way anymore. She went online and read a book about depression to try to figure out what she was experiencing and learned that she was battling depression and anxiety, and then later, aspects of borderline personality disorder. Vargas knew she needed to talk to her mom about addressing what she had discovered, and while finding the way to broach the subject with her mom wasn’t easy, she was finally able to ask if she could see a therapist.

It’s no secret that mental illness is not talked about in Latino culture.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), one in five Latinos will talk to a doctor about mental disorder symptoms and one in 10 Latinos will seek a mental health professional. But in 2013, Vargas started thinking of ways she could talk about mental health more publicly. She touched on the subject through her activism in reproductive rights, body image, and domestic violence, but she didn’t confront mental illness directly. That’s why she started the “People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” a photo series that features just that; people of color holding signs to share on the internet that they deal with mental illness.

Before she initiated the project, Vargas researched all that she could about mental health and noticed that the image results that depicted the issue predominantly featured white people and more specifically white women. The people in the photos held their head in their hands as if living with a mental illness was a miserable experience. Vargas acknowledged that it can be excruciating, but also said that it isn’t excruciating all the time. She felt those images didn’t reflect her experience or that of so many others.

“I’m light skinned so I have that privilege. However, what about my sister who’s darker skinned than I am,” said Vargas. “What about other people in the Latino community? Or people in other communities of color?”

4After viewing these images, she felt that the media representation needed to change. If she had seen more people of color dealing with depression and anxiety when she was a teen then she wouldn’t have felt so alone. “I wanted it to show the full humanity of people of color living with mental illness,” said Vargas. “I wanted to make them feel like they were reflected in both representation and [reflected] accurately.”

Inspired by a photo campaign where people shared that they have a therapist, Vargas invited people to take a selfie of themselves holding a sign that identifies the mental disorder they deal with. But Vargas didn’t want to hold an impossible standard. “I would never get anyone to participate because a lot of us don’t go to the doctor to get that diagnosis, and then also, just because you don’t have a diagnosis doesn’t negate your experience, doesn’t make it any less valid,” said Vargas, so she asked for people to share even if they weren’t officially diagnosed.

It was a slow start with the photos. Vargas felt that the stigma caused some to worry about the possibility of their co-workers and/or family members finding out about their conditions in a public setting. So Vargas decided to share her photo in hopes of inspiring others to do the same. And it worked.

She now has more than 100 photos featuring people of color declaring that they battle a mental illness of some sort. Some have included how it intersects with their ethnicity and/or their sexual orientation. The awareness continues to grow as Vargas talks about the project through various media outlets and speaking engagements. People share their stories after hearing hers. 

She admits that it takes a toll to repeatedly share stories of her traumatic experiences, but she is committed to inspiring others to share their stories, no matter how she’s feeling.

She does; however, emphasize the need for self-care. “I need to continue to remind myself this, [that] I cannot help other people if I do not help myself first,” said Vargas. “If I’m not investing in myself, then I can’t invest in my community. We are something to be invested in because we have things to offer and we have something of value.”

The photo project has sparked the conversation that many Latino families tend to avoid. Some people show the photos to their families. “It was a way for them to be open and come out about their mental illness in their family,” said Vargas. 

Vargas expanded the project last year by taking it offline with the release of the book, “The Color of the Mind.” She was organizing a bookstore event with a panel of local speakers and a gallery featuring some of the photos when she discovered that some of the submitted photos weren’t high print quality. She felt they deserved more and started a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to help publish the book.

“I also wanted to acknowledge the fact that not everyone has Internet access or not everyone knows where to go to even find the project,” said Vargas. “I wanted it to be something [that] you could have in your home or can have in a counseling office or in a community-based organization. I just wanted to expand it as much as possible.”

The online photo project is ongoing, and people are encouraged to submit their photos through Vargas’ website. While Vargas focused on school and work, the project ended up on the back burner, but now that she finished school with a Masters of Public Health, she is ready to dedicate more time to the book. She initially self-published, but  recently released an English-Spanish version of the book through the independent publisher, Reclamation Press.

For more resources on mental health, visit Vargas’ resource page.

To visit Vargas’ “People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” go to diorvargas.com/poc-mental-illness.