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Book explores how people of color cope with mental illness

CHICAGO – Diamond looks out from the pages of a book with big brown eyes and a shy smile set off by delightfully purple lipstick.

“I think that black women are taught there’s a certain way to present yourself; make sure that you’re always clean, always put together, and when you’re talking to people that are in authority positions that you present a certain type of face,” she says. “I think that hinders you because you aren’t able to show that you’re actually falling apart because you present so put together (sic). You don’t seem disheveled. I feel like black women particularly have been groomed since birth not ever to look that way. So how would someone know that something’s wrong?”

Diamond’s story is one of 34 included in “The Color of My Mind: Mental Health Narratives from People of Color.” The new self-published book is the brainchild of mental-health activist Dior Vargas, who is working toward a master’s degree in public health at New York University. The project started in 2014 as an online photo series when Vargas had finally seen enough mental-health conditions portrayed as strictly white, upper-middle-class concerns – or dangerous illnesses adding to the myth of the pathologically dangerous person of color.

According to the American Psychological Association, “blacks, Latinos, American Indians/Alaska Natives and Asian Americans are overrepresented in populations that are particularly at risk for mental health disorders. Additionally, minority individuals may experience symptoms that are undiagnosed, underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed for cultural, linguistic or historical reasons.”

The book – which Vargas worked on with photographer Zackary McDowell – explores the struggle of people of color living with mental illness. Many carry the added burden of being less likely than white people to have access to mental health services, much less a therapist with the same racial/ethnic background.

“The Color of My Mind” includes stories from men and women who grew up in cultures where no one spoke about mental illness or families where anxiety or depression was a fanciful luxury no one could afford to acknowledge – or worse, was a shame on the family name.

“In 2014, for some reason, people just started talking more about mental health. And even though the representation of people of color was lacking, at least more people in general were being more open,” Vargas told me. “That’s when things started to change, and I started seeing TV shows like ‘Empire’ and ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ feature characters of color with mental health issues. Now this didn’t mean that there were organizations in place to help everyone who started wondering whether they needed it, but it was an opportunity to have real talk about why people of color weren’t acknowledging their issues.”

It’s a conversation that still requires more amplification and support.

In the years since Vargas started talking about mental-health issues in communities of color, a rash of violent episodes started taking on the tinge of racism. White mass shooters were increasingly defined as mentally ill, while mass shooters of color were often portrayed as acting within violent cultural norms.

And even as people of color confront multiple barriers to getting therapy – no health insurance, a dearth of providers – the stressors keep ratcheting up. Many face heightened fear due to everything from stepped-up deportations to police brutality and contaminated water.

“This book is necessary in a time when there are a lot of horrible things going on,” Vargas told me. “It represents black, Asian, Latino, older and younger people with borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety … and sometimes those occur on top of someone having autism or other life circumstances that complicate matters. If a book like that is on the table and you can open it up and see people who look like you and your friends, it’s going to make an impact.”

Vargas’ book costs $24.95 and is available on Amazon.com and her website, diorvargas.com/shop/book.

“The Color of My Mind” is a validation for countless people who are hesitant to confess their own mental-health issues. And that little bit of respect for the pain people who look like them experience – and ultimately overcome – could … mean the difference between life and death.

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