Pride in Mental Health: Visibility
An interview with LGBTQ Activists, Cole Ledford and Dior Vargas
Posted Jun 24, 2017
This week I had the privilege of speaking with experts, activists, and advocates about the various mental health needs we have in the LGBTQ communities, at an event hosted by Crisis Text Line. We all agreed that a supportive and continuous, therapeutic relationship is key, for everyone really. But for those of us who face constant discrimination it can be a matter of life and death. The trouble is that psychotherapy is stigmatized; not enough clinicians are competent, curious, or empathetic enough to make a connection with LGBTQ clients; and too many people simply can’t afford therapy, or their insurance won’t cover it (if they even have insurance). The experts I spoke to all fight tirelessly against these obstacles, in order to connect people to the safe, loving, and supportive relationships they need and deserve.
For this segment of my Pride in Mental Health Series, I talk with Latina Feminist Mental Health Activist, Dior Vargas, who is also the Outreach Coordinator for Child Mind Institute (which is dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders) and Social Media Influencer and Award Winning Activist, Cole Ledford, about the role of visibility in LGBTQ mental health.
Tell me about your work.
Dior Vargas: I’ve been a crisis counselor with Crisis Text Line for about two years. And I was volunteering with different mental health organizations and I thought I wanted to do more than just bring awareness, I wanted to perform direct service, to really help people. So that’s why I started doing that. But I’ve also been doing a lot of activist work and advocacy. Telling my story. I live with anxiety, depression, and I’m also a suicide attempt survivor. And so I’ve been able to do a lot of speaking engagements. Not only because of that, but because I started a photo project. [called “People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” which intends to destigmatize mental health care for people of color]. I’ve been able to do a lot of different things with that. I’m actually going back to NYU in the fall to get a masters in public health. Because I love doing awareness but I also want to make sure that I’m involved in those policies so people can get the best care that they need.
Cole Ledford: So last summer I drove through every state in the United States, filming a series called “50 States of Gay,” and we interviewed one LGBTQ+ person in every state.
How did you find them?
Cole Ledford: I’m very lucky to have a social following, so I was able to tweet out kind of an application to join it. And then pairing with organizations, including The Trevor Project and Crisis Text Line, promoted it out to get followers to join in.
Who participated? Was it a diverse sampling?
Cole Ledford: The whole point was for it to be very diverse. We picked them in advance. I will say that eighty five percent of the applicants were white cis gendered males. But I did make a concerted effort to get people who represented different identities across America. Because that was the point of this. To show young kids that there was someone out there who was just like them.
Were you surprised by the kinds of people you found in certain states? We all have preconceived expectations of what state populations look like.
Cole Ledford: We were surprised by the trans person of color we met in Mississippi. She actually stood on the steps of the Mississippi courthouse and called out the governor on his anti transgender bathroom bill. So she sat down with us for about an hour. And her story is amazing. She now lives out in L.A., working for the L.A. LGBT Center, but goes back to help with all the things happening in Mississippi.
What are some of the specific mental health needs both of you observed through working on these wonderful projects?
Dior Vargas: It seems really general, but the need to be acknowledged to be seen to be heard. That’s the really important step in order for them to be open about what they’re going through. I think that’s the catalyst of that. To be able to get that support. To be able to be part of groups who are understanding of their experiences. So they know they’re not alone. I think that’s really important. Even in terms of just knowing how to get mental health services. Because I feel like a lot of times they don’t know where to go. They don’t even know how to look. They just don’t know how best to do that. Also thinking about in terms of if they do get a mental health professional, is it a person who has a sliding scale? Are they culturally competent? Because I feel like a lot of times, whether you’re queer or you’re a person of color you have to educate the therapist. And the main point [of therapy] is to get things out, to learn about yourself. If you spend the whole time educating someone. That’s not helpful to you, and that’s also a waste of the time that you need to take care of yourself.
And it’s re-traumatizing in a way. To be made to feel *other.* Like you’re an alien who has to describe exactly what it’s like on your alien planet. As opposed to being met with warmth and empathy, and openness. By someone who makes the effort to imagine what it’s like in your shoes.
Dior Vargas: Right. And that first experience is so crucial. Because I know so many people who went to a therapist and say, “I went to a therapist. It did not go well. I’m not going back. It’s a waste of time. They just don’t understand me.” And I can understand that one experience… you don’t want to have to go through that re-traumatizing. But I think in a lot of other situations, you have to try again. It’s like dating. You’re not going to date someone and fall in love that second. You have to shop around, you have to it’s a process.
How do you give people the will to try again?
Dior Vargas: I guess help them to identify what they didn’t like. Help them figure out what places they can look for a therapist. How they can filter. Because I feel like a lot of people don’t know, if you do have health insurance, going on that website, and already knowing that the therapist accepts your insurance, so you don’t have to worry about that. That’s a parameter in itself. It’s important to be able to know how to filter. And know that it’s something you can tailor to yourself. You have the upper hand and if it didn’t work one time, this is a transaction. Rationalize it in that way. Your care and your well being is the most important thing, so if something was wrong with them, and not anything wrong with you. There are a lot of other people.
Cole Ledford: One of the amazing things, or maybe not amazing but surprising, is that there are so many people who face the same struggles. Like, [what I discovered, working on the documentary,] that black transgender woman in Mississippi was having the exact same feelings that the white lesbian woman in Virginia was, and the kid in Arkansas who was twelve years old as well. Every person felt like they didn’t belong, or at some point felt like they didn’t need to carry on, they weren’t needed. So I think it’s important to show each other, “Look, we’re all in this together, we all feel this way, let’s work together.”
Dior Vargas: Also sharing, you know, I didn’t have the best experience with therapists but I kept on searching because it was about my well being. It was about my quality of life. So making it something overarching. It’s going to affect your whole life in a positive way. So trying to find different ways to talk about it. Also to help them look for a therapist.
What are some reliable mental health resources for LGBTQ+ people?
Dior Vargas: Callen Lorde Center is amazing. Hetrick-Martin is amazing. Even going to the LGBT Center. Going to the places you feel most comfortable, and seeing what kind of resources they have available. Because then you won’t feel like you’re not being heard and that people understand you. I think going to those communities is important.
Cole Ledford: I think it’s so difficult because everyone thinks that they can’t get help. I think every person just knowing that there are resources out there is such a big thing for them. So knowing the Crisis Text Line and Trevor Project, are out there as resources. But also knowing people that use it. When I openly talk about how I used Trevor Project when I was a kid, that makes people think, “Wow, I actually can trust this. They are there for me. They’re not just some random robot out there. They are real people you can talk to.”
So the fact that you used those services is helpful to other people. Modeling for them that it’s ok to reach out for help.
Cole Ledford: Yeah, modeling and just showing people that there are people who have had this experience who made it out on the other side. So many times people are like, “My mom’s going to find out if I call this number,” or “Someone’s gonna be mad that I did it,” or “It’s not gonna help.” But it helped. It worked.
That’s interesting because, as a therapist I find that people are sometimes ambivalent if not afraid to be dependent on others, and to ask for help. But to see people like you two--who have made it out of periods of despair by asking for help, and who continue to ask for help when you need it--is encouraging.
Cole Ledford: Yeah. One of the things I always talk about is what I was feeling back then, or I still struggle with anxiety and depression now. Recently I had a full on panic attack and anxiety attack, and I decided to turn on the camera and record it happening. And so that was just so people could see that I go through this too, it’s ok. Here’s what it’s like, and here’s my thought process while it’s happening. And I talk through how Candy Crush set off my anxiety attack. And I think that just allows people to see a real human experiencing that, and surviving that.
How do we make it more of a good idea for people to find a therapist? To de-stigmatize therapy? It’s not about being sick. It’s about having a continuous relationship so you can be seen and heard, like you said.
Dior Vargas: Yeah. I think redefining what it is to have a therapist. And kind of defining it in your own terms. There may be this overarching idea of what a doctor is or what a therapist is, or a psychologist. And kind of bringing it down into, this is someone you meet with once a week, and it’s about maintaining your mental health. Maintaining your self care. Emphasize wellness rather than “mental illness.” Make it more palatable. Redefine it for yourself. Because there are so many things that are fed into people from society. But thinking about what wellness means in your community. It’s about your quality of life. No matter who you are or what communities you’re a part of. And finding pride...for lack of a better word...and prioritizing your well being. Thinking of it through a social justice lens, I can’t be there for other people unless I’m there for myself. I can’t really work to push our movement without really investing in myself. By investing in yourself you’re also investing in your community.
You can be more of an advocate, more of an activist, if you take care of yourself.
Dior Vargas: Exactly. So it’s also important to think about it what I’m going through individually, matters. But it’s also not just you, it’s a slew of other people. So thinking about it in terms of, when I take care of myself I take care of my community.
Cole Ledford: Also, on a macro-level I think we need to reduce the need for services by passing a non-discrimination law. If we had a federal protection against discrimination, people would know they were welcome. They would feel that they were accepted in society. And that’s the number one cause for it [major mental health challenges in the LGBTQ communities] because we don’t feel accepted in today’s world. So if we could pass sweeping federal legislation to protect LGBT people legally from discrimination, that would be a big solution to the big problem we’re facing. But then on top of that I think having more of a focus on mental health on the national level would be a great way to start inspiring kids.
After I finish editing all these videos, I really want to run for office. I think the only way we can make actual tangible change--and we need to--is on the national, political level. And so I want to start organizing and run for office as soon as I can.
When young people see someone like me, or like others who have or have had mental health issues, running for these offices, it says you can live through this, openly.
Without having to disguise something about yourself.
Cole Ledford: Exactly. There are so many elected officials who have depression, have anxiety, have some mental anguish, but we don’t talk about it because it’s stigmatized. They don’t want people to know about it. They just want votes. But I think we can show people you can still be an amazing leader and ask for [mental and emotional] support at the same time.
How do we reach people who do not advocate for themselves. Who suffer in silence and are too afraid to seek help?
Cole Ledford: I think there’s a lot of passive activism. Even just by being themselves, that is activism. If you are willing to come out of the closet [and if it’s safe to do so] that is political, that is activist, that is showing that you aren’t afraid to be yourself. And it’s good to remember that it is activism in itself. That you don’t necessarily have to be speaking out, all the way. You can just be proud of who you are and that’s ok. That’s phenomenal. To connect to people who are less visible, I think… God bless him, Donald Trump in this one regard has made everyone political. He’s made everyone none passive now. Even if you don’t want to speak out. Because we’re seeing what happens when you don’t. A lot of people didn’t speak out in the last election… And this is what we got. So I’m hoping that in the future, more people will be speaking out.
What motivated you to become activists?
Dior Vargas: Growing up I guess there were so many parts of my identity that weren’t heard. I felt like I couldn’t speak for myself. I was shut down.
By family and community?
Dior Vargas: Yeah, yeah. And coming out to my mom, telling her I’m queer, telling her that I tried to end my life. That I live with these mental illnesses. There are so many parts of my identity that I felt weren’t accepted. And I had to fight for that. And so there’s a feeling of always having to fight for something. And it’s funny, I was just thinking, does anyone truly want to be an activist?... Because the truth is that you’re fighting for something because it’s coming from feeling left out, from feeling excluded, from feeling pain. It comes from pain. So you don’t want to have to be fighting every single day, but it’s like I just, seeing how other people are experiencing the same thing, and just wanting to help others, and seeing myself in other people. I don’t want what I’ve been through to just be siloed. I want other people to see themselves in me. To feel like, and I’m in no way perfect at all. I still have my struggles, I still have times when it’s hard to get out of bed. But I don’t want people to feel like they’re alone. And if I can do that for one person, that’s… I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s an activist personality, but I don’t want to live a life that doesn’t do for other people. It’s not a life worth living if I’m not helping people. If I’m not helping them move forward.
You are both such great examples of living out loud. It shows people that one can live a full and open life. Complete with challenges and struggles, but also creativity, joy, ambition, and generosity.
Cole, what motivated you to become an activist?
Cole Ledford: November 6, 2014, I was punched in the face for kissing my boyfriend at the time, goodnight. And what happened, I sent out a picture of my black eye, along with a message saying, “I’m sorry that you punched me, but I’m not sorry that I’m gay.” And it was retweeted forty seven thousand times and I went from fifteen hundred followers to forty thousand overnight.
What was that process like? In a short amount of time to go from the horrible shock of being punched, to going viral?
Cole Ledford: Yeah. Only about an hour passed before I went from punch to viral. Because I was kissing my boyfriend goodnight. Went back to my fraternity house after I had gotten punched. And walked in my fraternity front door. My brothers all freaked out trying to take care of me, check in on me. And I was like, I didn’t really want to talk about it, I was kind of embarrassed, I was still kind of new to being out. It had only been about a year. So I went into my room, and to not have to explain it to anyone ever again what had happened, I took the picture so my friends would see it, and I wouldn’t have to explain it. And little did I know, once I tweeted it, I threw my phone on my bed and didn’t look at it for three hours, and when I came back upstairs to unlock it, I was the number one topic in the United States. And Ellen had retweeted it, Tyler Oakley had retweeted it. The rest is history.
I’ve never been that private of a person. So, it definitely helped to share it. I’m only private with the things I don’t want you to know. But the things I do I’ll share willingly. I think that’s almost a defense mechanism. You can tell me, you’re the psychotherapist.
I would call that survival.
Cole Ledford: Yes, survival, absolutely. The year before that I had opened up in a Ted Talk about my suicide attempt at sixteen. So a lot of my life has been kind of met with moments of bravery by sharing what had affected me at some point. And I think this was just another one for me where I realized, “Alright, this is a time when I become an activist once again, and people are wanting to hear from me once again.” My story. And I did my best to embrace it. We did a lot of T.V. interviews, like local news. And then we kind of shut it down, we pulled it back. I was getting a little anxious. My mom was like, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And we pulled it back for about a year. And then I put myself back out there.
So, you don’t suffer in silence.
Cole Ledford: Well, I think I did until I was sixteen. I attempted suicide and I survived that. I kind of found my voice after that. And so after suffering in silence for so long, you just don’t want to do that anymore. I’m me, I have my flaws but I’m going to own them.
It’s a real opportunity to discover your resiliency at a time like that. Because people can go either way when faced with that intensity; sink or swim.
Cole Ledford: Absolutely. I lost friends. But I made so many new ones.
Where did your bravery come from? To be on your own side after the suicide attempt?
Cole Ledford: You know, I don’t know where it came from. I found my voice when I got to college. And before I came out of the closet I was talking about my suicide attempt. And my mom is the bravest woman I know, and somehow that just got passed down through genetics.
She doesn’t suffer in silence either?
Cole Ledford: She goes kicking and screaming.
Dior Vargas: There are not enough people in this space [Activism/ Advocacy. Openly sharing personal struggles and ways to survive and move through them]. The more that there can be, the better. Not everyone will relate. But at least there will be a point of relation. There needs to be as many examples as possible.
Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R
More Articles in the PRIDE IN MENTAL HEALTH SERIES:
Crisis Intervention: An interview with The Trevor Project and Crisis Text Line
Education: An interview with GLSEN and The Hetrick-Martin Institute
LGBTQ+ Mental Health Resources:
Crisis Text Line (Text 741741 for free, 24/7)
The Trevor Project
Psychology Today Therapist Finder
Refine your search based on therapists' experience with people who are LGBTQ+
New York City-Based Resources:
The LGBT Center
Lighthouse LGBT (LGBTQ Affirmative Therapist Network)
Institute for Human Identity Therapy Center