This Woman Is Leading A Mental Health Revolution For Women Of Color

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro

For the third year in a row, Bustle's Upstart Awards are honoring young women who are doing incredible things in the realms of business, STEM, fashion and beauty, the arts, philanthropy, and beyond.

Mental health issues are still treated as taboo, despite how commonplace they are in our culture and personal lives. If you don’t have a mental illness, then it's almost certain you know someone who does. One in five American adults live with a mental illness, with women being disproportionately affected by mental health issues like depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in comparison to men. Though women are diagnosed with a mental illness on an epidemic scale, mental health stigmas persist, and may keep young women from seeking treatment. But thanks to Elyse Fox, founder of Sad Girls Club, women now have a platform to speak candidly about mental health without shame.

Fox, 27, founded the online organization Sad Girls Club, an online and IRL mental health community created to help young women living with mental illness. Fox founded Sad Girls Club after she made a short documentary, Conversations with Friends, that vulnerably portrayed her own mental health struggles. Shortly after the release of her film, Fox received an abundance of emails from young girls around the world asking Fox to mentor them. It was then that Fox realized young women with mental illness were in need of a supportive, safe community. "For Sad Girls Club, I just really wanted to create a community around mental health," Fox tells Bustle. "I felt, when I was a young girl, I didn't have [any support] or a club that I belonged to. I always felt like an outcast. When I went to parties, I didn't fit in all the way." Fox says, "I wanted to make a community for girls who are like the 12-year-old Elyse." With more than 12 million women diagnosed with depression today, the need for spaces like Sad Girls Club is more crucial than ever.

Though Fox created Sad Girls Club less than a year ago, the group’s Instagram account now has over 17,000 followers who receive daily motivational posts and mental health resources. "Learning about my mental health has been the best [coping skill]. If I feel like I'm the only one going through something, I just studied up on depression and different types of mental health issues," Fox says. Understanding the why and how of your mental illness(es) can be very empowering, as Sad Girls Club has learned all too well.

Additionally, Sad Girls Club’s IG and official website routinely feature stories or poetry from young women who struggle with mental health issues. Fox, who herself lives with depression, is not immune to harmful, mental health stigmas. "I hate when people say, 'Oh, you don't look depressed,' or 'You don't look depressed because you're smiling,'" Fox explains. "You can never tell who has depression. It is not just something you wear on your sleeve. That's one thing I wish [people who live without mental illness] would stop saying and posting."

Despite the discrimination Fox has faced due to her mental health issues, she works hard to inspire other mentally ill women to live confidently and take care of themselves. Fox's go-to coping strategy is so simple, yet deeply therapeutic: mindfulness. "I really suggest meditating, taking time for yourself, and being selfish with that time," Fox says, "Even if it is just 10 minutes, no phone or TV, focusing on positivity and goals. I do that every day." She also suggests journaling, and writing down 10 positive things every day — a technique she herself learned from a member of Sad Girls Club.

Fox is forging an online space that works not only to destigmatize mental health, but establishes a sense of community among women, especially women of color who live with mental illness. "I never felt 'represented' in the mental health world," Fox says. "There are advocates, actresses, and other people in the media who struggle with mental illness, but there's never been a woman I resonated with, [a woman] who looked like me or who came from a similar background, and who said they struggle with mental illness, with a sense of pride. Women of color are supposed to be the 'strong ones,' and we don't have anyone to look up to."

Women of color are already vastly underrepresented in the media, and with the rare exception of the character Annalise Keating (played by Viola Davis) in How To Get Away With Murder, black women with mental health issues rarely exist in mainstream entertainment. With rising racial and political divides present in today's America, Fox says “it's more evident than ever [women of color] are really at the bottom, which is why I'm making it my duty to create spaces for people like me."

Fox's push for inclusivity transcends Sad Girls Club's online community, and is also a large part of Sad Girls Club's IRL meetings in Manhattan. "I try to make [Sad Girls Club] engaging for every type of girl, so I'm very adamant about making every event different," Fox says. "We've done meditation retreats, poetry slams, art therapy in the park, and we have conversations just talking about our weeks, or what we can do to make next week better." Fox tries to incorporate different methods and artistic mediums to engage girls who have varying interests or coping skills.

New York City is the first Sad Girls Club location, but definitely not the last. Fox plans to "launch an ambassador program, so those who can't make it to meetings can host meetings in their own [Sad Girls Club]." Not only is Fox determined to create "worldwide Sad Girls Clubs," but she says, "I ultimately would like to do a Sad Girls Club tour, and take it on the road to different cities or countries that don't really have mental health outlets for youth."

"...It is OK to not be '100 percent.' If you are feeling like you need to speak out, or develop a support system, start by reaching out to someone you trust."

Fox, who's determined to make Sad Girls Club a mainstay in the mental health world, says, "I don't want to create something trendy or seasonal, but rather a community that's long-lasting — for the rest of my life and beyond." In addition to Sad Girls Club, Fox intends to keep developing her passion for film, and hopes to become a professional director. "I studied film in college, and that's what basically ignited Sad Girls Club, so I want to continue to use my art as my voice," Fox tells Bustle.

When asked what message she'd like to share with young women who are silently struggling with mental illness, Fox says, "I want to tell them it is OK to not be '100 percent.' If you are feeling like you need to speak out, or develop a support system, start by reaching out to someone you trust. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it." Fox is blazing a path for young women with mental health issues, showing thousands of us it's time to candidly speak up, and that there is no shame in living with mental illness.

Learn more about Bustle's 2017 Upstart Awards here.