My depression emerged when I was only six years old. It started after my dad abandoned my mom, my sister, and me. He was abusive to my mom, but I was still devastated when he left because we’d been very close. He left us with months of unpaid rent. We didn’t have any food. Sometimes we would eat ice for dinner.
I endured so much turmoil and suffering as a child. It was a level of trauma that made it hard for me to get through every single day.
Meanwhile, I was being bullied in school. I completely lost my sense of self-worth. From the ages of eleven to eighteen, I was deeply depressed. I repeatedly tried to end my life. When I went home after my freshman year of college, I attempted suicide one last time. It was almost lethal. I was hospitalized and stayed in the psychiatric ward.
After that, I started therapy and medication for my depression. It was the first time I’d had consistent treatment. I was recovering, but it took all of my willpower to get out of bed each day. To motivate myself, I would think about my mom and the sacrifices she made. I owed it to her to do my best. My hard work got me into Smith College, and I graduated in spite of the challenges I faced.
After graduation, I worked in publishing for a few years, and I continued treatment for my depression. But I only found true happiness when I started my current career as a mental health advocate.
Helping other people gives me joy. And it gives meaning to my own experience with depression.
I started a project that has changed my life: the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project. Where I grew up, in Spanish Harlem, mental health wasn’t discussed. And ethnic minorities aren’t really represented in the media when it comes to mental health issues. So I wanted to inspire people of color to tell their stories of mental illness.
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It’s been an amazing experience to meet so many people who have overcome incredibly tough challenges. And I’ve received some wonderful feedback on the project. One student told me, “This saved my life. I was able to acknowledge my mental illness because of this photo project.”
I’m also working as an outreach coordinator at the Child Mind Institute, a mental health nonprofit. And I’ve developed a workshop for middle and high school students that provides a safe space for them to share stories about their mental health journeys. I'm starting school at NYU to get a Masters in Public Health. Ultimately, I want to work on shaping mental health policy, which could help many thousands of people.
The most important thing I’ve learned about depression is to just keep going, no matter how hard it seems. I’ve also learned what triggers my depression and tried to avoid those triggers. And I’ve learned to show myself love and care. My story is proof that you can have a full, wonderful life in spite of depression.
Dior Vargas is a Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist and creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project. She goes around the country giving keynotes and hosting workshops. Dior is the recipient of numerous awards, including The White House Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy.
Image Credit: Norman Jean Roy