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.
1. Who is Dior Vargas?
I’m a human being who isn’t perfect and is still learning. I feel the need to say that since many people have this idea that activists have it all figured out regarding certain topics that they are working on. Even more so for people with mental health conditions. Just because we advocate for those experiences doesn’t mean that we no longer struggle with the same issues. It’s definitely a process and something I want people to know.
2. What was the deciding factor in your advocacy for mental illness?
I had been an activist for years so that aspect was easy. However, mental illness is something that I feel like I’ve lived with all of my life, It’s something that needs to be spoken about. I was chatting with two of my friends a few years ago and I felt comfortable enough to talk to them about what I was going through. I felt validated and finally not alone. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I was also able to work on a subject that is more connected to me than anything else I’ve experienced.It’s also central to everything, to be honest. Without mental health, you don’t have health.
3. Why do you think Latina’s but especially teenagers are at a higher risk of committing suicide?
I think that when you are coming from a traditional community which is very family oriented and you want to acclimate to American culture which is so individualistic, then you’re living within a border culture which is a direct conflict with your family and upbringing; that can also lead to arguments with one’s family. Especially with one’s mother which is a very complicated relationship to begin with. Teens are trying to figure out who they are and when you’re constantly at odds with someone with whom you have a close relationship and who also has high expectations of you, you might feel like you’re not enough.
4. Based on your own activism and experiences, what do you feel are some of the ways that the Latinx community can be pro-active in suicide prevention?
I think we need to talk about and confront these issues head-on. We should create an environment of honesty without fear of judgment. I don’t think it comes from a negative place. It just comes from what has been the tradition for so many of us which is to try and get through some rough times by being strong and working our hardest. We also need to know the warning signs and have certain plans in place to deal with it if the struggles lead to an attempt.
5. You created the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project as a means of raising awareness and to also increase the visibility of mental illness within marginalized communities. How has this project helped to destabilize the negative connotations and stigmas often associated with mental illness?
I think this project has shown that there is no one look to mental illness and that anyone and everyone can experience it. When you work at the margins that’s when you can help most people. When you see someone who looks like you or your family it becomes personal and I feel like there is a sense of urgency to tackle these issues when its close to home. Storytelling is important in anti-stigma work and there are more opportunities for people to find relevance in other people’s experiences.
6. Many people may know you as a mental health advocate but when we met a few years ago at a panel we were both on, you were working in publishing. What are the last five books you’ve read by women of color?
I feel awful but I haven’t been able to read books lately. The last book I read by a woman of color was ZAMI by Audre Lorde.
7. What does #selfcare look like for a self-proclaimed Feminist, Activist and published Writer like yourself?
It’s funny because my self-care is all over the place or non-existent. I spend time with my partner. watch movies, tv shows, documentaries and play with the family dog. I also try to connect with my 9 as much as possible.
8. What advice would adult Dior give to her 15-year-old self?
I would tell her that there are many many hard years coming up for her but she’ll get through it. She wasn’t bred to give up. There are setbacks but never a complete surrender.
9. After Hurricane Maria, it’s been widely reported that the people of Puerto Rico are suffering from anxiety, depression, panic attacks and other triggers associated with mental illness. How does a community stabilize after such a traumatic shift of events? How do we help?
There needs to be a massive effort put in place where there are peer support workers, community health workers, and other mental health professionals going to Puerto Rico to provide mental health support. Foods and other materials are helpful but they don’t address these mental health conditions. It is going to take a long time for people to feel “stabilized” after an event like this. There is going to be a lot of resentment and anger (more than there already is) towards the United States and how this administration is handling this.
10. What’s next for Dior?
I’m working on the next phase of the project which involves exhibiting the recent professionally taken photos as well as publishing a book of those photos so that more people can see this work. I’m still doing speaking engagements from time to time. I’m currently in an MPH program at NYU where I’m studying policy. I want to move forward in my activism and make sure I can have a role in making policies that benefit the mental health of people of color. I’ve recently become a board member of the National Coalition of Latinxs with Disabilities. They are doing great work. An essay of mine will be published in an upcoming mental health anthology so I’m very excited about that.
You can connect with Dior Vargas on the following social media sites:
My website: diorvargas.com