Latina mental health

Latina mental health was front and center for a change thanks to Smith College alum Dior Vargas ’09. The Latina feminist mental health activist and recipient of the White House Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy, presented insights about mental illness/health and race. Her clarion call was to all Latinas and People of Color (POC) to step out of the shadows. She also wants the rest of us to wake up about this issue. The Smith College NYC Club event was held at UJA-Federation of New York.

Silenced no more – Dior opened her talk with personal stories.

“My mother slapped me when I first shared thoughts of suicide as a child,” said Vargas. “Therapy is for white people,” another relative told her. But Dior refused to be silenced.

“White criminals are considered mentally ill. But People of Color are treated like a criminals before considering that they might have a mental illness. Latins and People of Color battle microaggressions, cultural, religious, language barriers, and negative stereotypes that white people rarely face,” said Vargas.

Mental health for Latinas

Brown, Black pain – How many of you know or are related to someone with a mental illness? Do you know someone who needs therapy, counseling and treatment because of stress, grief, or depression? Would you call the police if your schizophrenic or bipolar child or relative attacked you? Are you in denial about your loved one’s pain? Does brown and black pain exist? Dior confronts these topics and more in her advocacy work. Her pioneering People of Color Mental Illness photography project, successfully funded on Kickstarter, is expanding globally.

Complex cultural stigmas, access to treatment and culturally sensitive services are big problems. Finding the right doctor, therapist, medicine, diagnosis and treatment add up to more challenges. We all know that racism and discrimination drives everyone crazy! But institutional racism against people of color in the medical, educational, police and justice system is rampant. Our own families, friends and communities are also part of the problem too.

Smith College alums, friends and family gathered to learn and listen. We engaged in dialogue about this invisible problem.

Comments from Smithies

How we talk and don’t talk “Dior Vargas ’09 bravely shared her story and emboldened all of us to examine mental illness in our culture and in society, how we talk about it or don’t talk about it: the ingrained shame or taboo about mental illness, whether in the home, in schools, in our communities, the intersection of race, class, geography, ancestral memory, and identity as it relates to health, wholeness, mental illness as a disability, and resilience. Dior seamlessly integrated startling statistics, her own story, and powerful examples of her Photo Project, galvanizing people all over the world to share their truth via a supportive online community.

Dior is an activist, feminist, and mental health pioneer. It was a privilege to hear her. I feel like we were watching greatness unfold, as she is just starting out. I’m so proud of Dior and our Smith community who supported her on January 26 evening, with alumnae from both Smith College and The Smith College School of Social Work and friends of Smithies.” Vanessa Gates-Elston, NYC Smith Club, VP Programs

mental health for Latinas

From invisible to visible – “I have been involved for many years with NYC-based Fountain House, the leading successful community mental health recovery model that has inspired development of similar Clubhouses – working communities – in 32 countries worldwide.

I was so moved by Dior, who shared her personal story of living with depression. She spoke about her long history of struggling with unbearable suffering – leading to suicide attempts to escape the pain. Stigma, lack of knowledge about mental illness and cultural norms in the Hispanic community led to her family’s inability to accept and communicate about her depression, leaving her devastated and socially isolated.

 Dior’s commitment to speaking out about her personal journey touched everyone. She shared little-known statistics about the stigma and social distancing experienced by Black and Hispanic people living with mental illness that revealed they are largely invisible in society.

 Seeking to change the media’s focus on mental illness as a “white person’s disease,” Dior created the inspiring People of Color Photo Project. Black, Hispanic and other People of Color post photos of themselves holding posters revealing their illnesses and celebrating their own strength and resilience. Invisible no longer, they stand as a model for others in their communities, calling for greater awareness and conversations about mental illness that can reduce stigma and encourage people to seek treatment leading to recovery.

 Dior’s hard-won courage to speak out and her commitment to changing the way people of color with mental illness are perceived and treated by their families, communities and the media is ground-breaking and will make a real difference. Encouraging all other Smithies to support this amazing Project, I remain changed by Dior’s compelling personal story and her resounding call to action. Karen Pratt ’76, Fountain House, NYC.

 Latina affirms – “As a Latina woman, I could relate to Dior’s presentation. Hispanic-Latin families are very close-knit, and therapy/counseling is not part of the culture nor is it accepted as essential to our well-being.  Some change has happened, though very slow. Social media is helping to improve awareness of mental health in Hispanic/Latin communities. Doors are opening to communication among families with children with emotional challenges.  Yet, more education and awareness about mental illness is needed to continue via social media, TV, radio and all avenues of communication in order to reduce the immense stigma embedded in the community.” Jennifer Rivera, Fountain House, NYC.

Make personal political; be an ally “Ms. Vargas is an inspiration. She eloquently and courageously disclosed details of her journey living with mental illness. In the spirit of feminists before her, she made the personal political. She wove theories of intersectionality of race, gender, and sexual orientation. She advocated for policy and cultural changes to address health care. She challenged us to examine the ways stigma affects all of us, particularly people of color.

As allies, it can be an overwhelming task to figure out what we can do to join and follow Ms. Vargas’ charge.  As she modeled for us, it can be easiest to start with the personal, by identifying and examining our personal beliefs about mental health care and mental illness.

 Common myths and misunderstandings about therapy and mental health problems

If I have mental health conditions, I am weak/bad.

If I need help, I am weak/less of a man.

If my child has mental illness, it means I am a bad parent.

I should keep my illness a secret/in the family.

I should be able to handle this on my own/ with the church’s help only/with my family’s help only.

If people were to learn about my issues, they will all judge me and I will lose my job (insert other negative consequence).

 You can ask yourself and loved ones these questions and work to challenge the ones that are untrue, or unfair to yourself and others:

Do I judge people for going to therapy or seeking counseling? Do I think about those in therapy in stereotyped ways? Have I internalized stigmas? Do I worry that I will be judged and/or discriminated against for my mental health issues? “ Wendy Bassett, LCSW, AC’98, MSW ’03, Psychotherapist

What are your thoughts on how can we improve the mental health crisis for people of color?

Rename Columbus Day

Native Blanket

The movement to rename Columbus Day continues to build. By now, many of you agree that we should honor our Indigenous sisters and brothers. Christopher Columbus and his invaders were lost at sea. He landed in the Caribbean where he was rescued and greeted with love and generosity by the Taino and native tribes. He thought they were inferior and began a campaign of murder, rape, torture, and slavery that lasted for years. Today, he is rarely discussed in US classrooms. Historians have already proven that America was populated by millions of civilized Natives and Indigenous tribes. Furthermore, ancient Hebrews, Chinese and Vikings had already visited or ‘discovered’ America hundreds of years before Columbus. To read more on the false history many of us were taught, click here.

Thank goodness, more American communities want to recognize Indigenous Day of Remembrance. You may recall that I posted about renaming the American holiday Indigenous Remembrance Day, last year. Here’s an excerpt:

“My Indigenous and Native American ancestors are finally getting some respect. Columbus Day is getting re-branded. I know that my ancestors would be thrilled to see more American cities recognize the truth: That Columbus did not ‘discover’ America.”  To read more, click my blog post.


Native tribes protest Columbus Day at Columbus Circle, NYC
Native tribes protest Columbus Day at Columbus Circle, NYC

Berkley, California was the first city to get rid of the holiday back in the 1990s. Today, more cities are pushing for change. Cities in Kansas, Oregon and Texas have already gotten rid of this holiday. For facts, click more cities.

Some religious leaders want to see the holiday renamed for Indigenous people too.

“We are the original inhabitants of this land,” said the Rev. David Wilson, superintendent of the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference and a Choctaw. “But there is so little to affirm the contributions that Native American people have made to this country by giving up the land, which wasn’t voluntary, and all the sacrifices people have made.” For more, click here: churches push to rename Columbus Day.

Of course some Italian organizations are upset. One group has proposed a ‘middle-ground.’ An idea to rename the day for Italians and make another day for Natives is making its rounds.

“John Viola, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Italian American Foundation, said renaming Columbus Day dishonors the country’s 25 million Italian Americans and their ancestors. He said Italian Americans feel slighted by cities that are dropping Columbus Day.” By default, we’re like the collateral damage of this trend,” he said. The foundation’s leadership council is scheduled later this month to take up the issue.” For more, click here.

Would you vote in favor of a new holiday called Indigenous Remembrance Day? Is there a middle ground for Italian heritage and Native recognition?

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Coming to the Table-NYC group meeting at my home in Lower Manhattan, dining on Soul-Caribbean food.
Coming to the Table-NYC group meeting at my home in Lower Manhattan, dining on Soul-Caribbean food.

That old Christmas carol always spoke to me, especially the Whitney Houston version. It could be that the world is going to hell. But maybe we will all be redeemed. I sure hope so. I participated in a silent vigil with Quaker Friends at the recent Millions March NYC. While I don’t have exact numbers, I know I saw a lot of old-school folks from many different ethnic backgrounds participating in the march too. I was there for a little while and walked with the crowd for few blocks. I am a seasoned New Yorker accustomed to walking many long city blocks. But big crowds overwhelm me. So, I did not stay long. Personally, I let the youngsters do the lying in the streets and all-night demonstrations.

We were mobilized to protest racist police brutality and unjust Grand Jury practices. Like many of you, I have been trying to exhale for months. The racial divide that we thought was closing was shown to be a widening gap. Yet, we see good will emerging everywhere. I really do hope many more of us will pray and work actively toward racial healing and reconciliation in our nation and the world. Can we really afford to stand idly by?

As co-leader for Coming to the Table – NYC (CTTT), I would like to invite you to learn more about our group. We focus on healing dialogue and ‘deep listening’ sessions. We “provide leadership, resources and a supportive environment for all who wish to acknowledge and heal wounds from racism that is rooted in the United States’ history of slavery,” as stated on the website.

We discuss racism in relation to topics such as power, privilege, institutional power, prejudice, stereotype, oppression, racism and how to be an ally. We attend films, museum exhibits, theater performances and university lectures. Sometimes we gather at each others homes, local libraries and cafes. We eat, talk, and listen. CTTT is a different kind of meet-up. It is deep, intense and fun engagement. We are all volunteers.

I became involved with CTTT while researching my ancestor’s lynching in Mississippi. I always knew about this family secret but never learned any specifics. Finally, I read the horrific details published in archival newspaper articles. I needed to talk to someone. Reading about my uncle’s lynching traumatized me although I did not know him. A cousin introduced me to CTTT a few years ago. Since then, I have felt so grateful for new friendships and expanded American history knowledge. I was paired with a Southern white woman who discovered that her ancestor, a revered judge-minister, had lynched and caused the death of several formerly enslaved persons. Through our new friendship I learned that we both were wounded by slavery. Together, we are on a healing journey. We are both active in our respective communities to help heal our nation’s racial wounds. We believe in action and the power of dialogue, listening and eating together. Check CTTT’s Face book page by clicking here.

As I close out this year, I am reminded of many blessings including feeling thankful for freedom. For the New Year, I wish everyone a joyous year full of tenderness, mercy, justice and most of all, peace.

Drinking genes: Alcoholism in the family

Your genes determine whether you get drunk after drinking.
Your genes determine whether you get drunk after drinking.

I wonder about drinking genes. Alcoholism seems to run in my family. Several of my relatives died from cirrhosis, an illness related to alcoholism. Thank goodness, I’m not much of a drinker. But my mom told me she worried that I might be at risk because I was born drunk. Well, truthfully, she was drunk when I was born. She said her excuse was that I took too long to be born. She said that she drank a full bottle of wine during her ninth month of pregnancy with me. Finally, I popped out several weeks overdue! I have always limited my alcohol intake because it makes my face and neck flush and my heart race. Knowing your family’s health problems, especially with alcohol, proves why genealogy is good for your health.

Scientists have proven that there are several genes related to alcohol metabolism.

“Multiple genes play a role in a person’s risk for developing alcoholism. There are genes that increase a person’s risk, as well as those that may decrease that risk, directly or indirectly. For instance, some people of Asian descent carry a gene variant that alters their rate of alcohol metabolism, causing them to have symptoms like flushing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat when they drink. Many people who experience these effects avoid alcohol, which helps protect them from developing alcoholism.” Click here to read more.

Book cover about underage drinking and peer pressure. Go to:
Book cover about underage drinking and peer pressure. Go to:

How do you know if your child will become an alcoholic? Key genes play a role in alcohol dependence.

“Today, scientists at the Scripps Research Institute announced they’ve identified a key gene that appears to strongly influence the development of alcoholism and alcohol dependence. The research could prove key to zeroing in on how increased risk for alcoholism runs in families. The study, published in Biological Psychiatry, sheds considerable light on genetic variations and how they predict who becomes dependent on alcohol and the severity of the disease. (Yes, alcohol is a disease.)”  To read more click here.

What about hangovers? Yes, there’s a gene for that too.

“Some people get hangovers after a night of drinking, while others don’t, and the reason may be in their genes, a new study of twins in Australia suggests. Researchers looked for links between the study participants’ genetic makeups and the number of hangovers the individuals reported experiencing in the past year. The results showed that genetic factors accounted for 45 percent of the difference in hangover frequency in women and 40 percent in men. Click here to learn more.

For a list of family illnesses caused by heavy drinking, click here.

Do you have drinking genes in your family?

Genealogy is Good for Your Brain

Genealogy is good for your brain! I stumbled across a study done in Berlin that seems to prove that genealogy increases brainpower. Thinking about our ancestors can boost performance on intelligence tests creating something called an “ancestor effect,” according to the European study.

Maternal grandmother’s sister Aunt Emily and Uncle Mansing pose in Trinidad.

“Anecdotally, there’s reason to believe that such thoughts (thinking about where we came from – our ancestors) are beneficial. Why else the public fascination with genealogy and programmes like the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? Now Peter Fischer and his colleagues at the Universities of Graz, Berlin and Munich have shown that thinking about our ancestors boosts our performance on intelligence tests – what they’ve dubbed ‘the ancestor effect’.”

Read more about it in the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest Blog at:

What happy good news! I have always felt that the genealogists were smarter than most people. So, here’s some scientific proof to back up that claim.  I mean, what profession requires one to be an historian detective organizing, analyzing, and interpreting data and using the brain in so many different ways? Genealogy is a multidisciplinary pursuit that demands insights into many areas including history, psychology, sociology, biology, genetics, geography, languages, problem solving, logic and mathematics.

Do you think about your family history? Have you tried to do genealogy searches for anyone? Great. Your are brilliant!