Why This Latina Created a Photo Project on Mental Illness in Communities of Color

Dior Vargas

Sadly, our own communities aren’t much better at accepting us, either. Because mental illness is recognized as a white person’s issue, many people of color are accused of abandoning our race, or trying to “act white,” just for seeking mental help. In 2001, a study analyzing mental health among racial and ethnic minorities found that stigma is the most pervasive problem preventing people of color from seeking the care they need. For Latinas, that stigma gets typified through words like "loca," crazy, a label deluged with negative stereotypes that work to separate the mentally ill from the larger community, to make them unfit, unworthy and lampooned outcasts. This stigma, coupled with our communities’ lack of knowledge regarding mental health disorders and treatments, contributes to lower utilization of mental health services. This, in turn, leads our people to live desolate, unfulfilled lives, or worse, it plays a part in our early demise, whether through substance abuse or self-inflicted causes.

Mental illness intersects with race and ethnicity in astounding ways. Latinos, for instance, have been identified as a high-risk group for depression, and Latinas experience the mental illness at roughly twice the rate of our male counterparts. This isn’t just true for adults. Latina teens have the highest rates of suicidal ideation and attempts. Our racial, ethnic and cultural identities have been identified as direct and major contributors. Difficulty adjusting to two cultures, unemployment, menial labor, poor health and large family sizes have all been attributed to Latinos’ high rates of mental disorders. But racial, ethnic and immigrant discrimination, whether real or perceived, are also factors. We are taught, since childhood, that white is right, and the only way to succeed in this country is to lose as much of ourselves as possible. These messages are detrimental to our self-esteem.

I started the People of Color & Mental Illness Photo Project in 2014 to fulfill three objectives: add racialized and nuanced representations of mental illness into history, end stigma around mental health in communities of color and spark conversations about this important intersection. I wanted to provide a place for people of color to own their representation – a place where their voices are amplified instead of silenced. Participants do this by snapping photos of themselves holding up signs that say they have a mental illness, list the disorder they live with or go into further detail on what it’s like to have a mental illness as a person of color.

Doing this humanizes mental illness. We can read statistics all day, but numbers are never as compelling as seeing people and reading their personal stories. There are currently 94 photo submissions, which means there are 94 narratives and a minimum of 94 conversations that can generate from the project. Each photo tells a different story, and each one is as unique as the person who sits in front of the camera. Some participants name their disorder, while others discuss what it’s like to have that illness in their Ecuadorian or Filipino household. Some call out the medical and legal system in their countries, illustrating the ways race and mental health intersect with larger structures. All of the photos are powerful. All of them are necessary. And all of them deserve to be included in mental health discussions.