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Dior Vargas, Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist, Discusses Mental Health and Depression

First Posted: Feb 19, 2015 05:00 AM EST
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Dior Vargas

Dior Vargas(Photo : Dior Vargas)

Depressive symptoms have blindsided the Latino community, and despite there being a high volume of U.S. Latinos living with depression or mental illnesses, researchers have found that depression and anxiety are largely untreated among Hispanics and Latinos, particularly the uninsured.

And for certain sub-groups, such as Puerto Ricans, the trend is worse.

Latina feminist and 27-year-old native New Yorker Dior Vargas utilizes her own battle with major depressive disorder as the groundwork for her work with mental health advocacy. She has the ambitious goal of eradicating stigmas surrounding mental health. And she intends to do so by using her own personal experience to encourage conversation and strengthen the voices of others, who are enduring the same challenges, and come from a similar frame of experience.

"I could easily label myself as a mental health activist, but being a Latina feminist is extremely important to who I am. I view everything with a feminist lens and I see the intersectionality of people's experiences. One does not solely experience mental health challenges without being a woman, a person of color, or someone who lives in poverty," Vargas said to Latin Post. "This all informs the work I do. With this understanding, I am sharing my lived experience as well as providing resources to communities of color, positioning myself as someone they can reach out to for advice, and amplifying their voices to show others that they are not alone."

According to Vargas, the public should be aware that depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc. affects everyone. It isn't something that people can snap out of, and positive thinking won't fix things. It is important to honor the experiences and emotions of depressed individuals, and not minimize them. It's also important, she says, to be aware of the language surrounding this topic, which can have an impact on sufferers. Using the correct terms when describing a disorder or affliction, is just as important as understanding that recovery is different for everyone and it has different definitions.

"Latino/as struggle to find mental health care professionals who speak Spanish and are culturally competent. In addition, the lack of health insurance makes it more difficult for them to access mental health care," stated Vargas. "Even with health insurance it can still be a problem. There are many health disparities for communities of color such as access to facilities as well as the assumptions that mental health care professionals have towards these communities, which affects the treatment they receive."

Shame and secrecy has long been the language of depressed Latinos, who are raised in a border culture that encourages the cultivation of dual identities. The dual identities suggest that Latinos must remain very much connected to our families while needing to gain a sense of independence and self-sufficiency. Therefore, Latinos are constantly looking for a sense of belonging and understanding as they acculturate. This, Vargas says, contributes to challenges with mental health," because we are trying to be better than the ones who came before us and make them proud via accomplishments and success."

The "People Of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project" featured on Vargas' website showcases non-white individuals dealing with issues of mental illness. It brings light to the fact that mental illness is not a white person's disease, but it's a reality for many in the Latino community and other marginalized groups in the United States and abroad. 

"As I was figuring out how I wanted my mental health activism to manifest itself, I noticed that when it came to articles about mental health there was a consistent representation of people who experience mental health challenges: white people. Then I began to realize that in TV, movies, etc. this was also the case," said Vargas. "Thinking back on my experience with depression growing up, I think that if I had seen people who looked like me I wouldn't have felt like I was the only one feeling this way. So I decided that in addition to providing that for others, I would also humanize this experience and give others the opportunity to get away from the shame and find strength."

Vargas continues her work by giving the Latino community an ongoing opportunity to share their stories in an anthology that highlights writing as a very therapeutic tool. 

"I wanted to continue the work of giving my community the opportunity to share their stories and I thought an anthology would be a great way to do so. I've always found writing to be very therapeutic and I hope this gives people a way to express themselves," said Vargas.

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