3 Mental Health Awareness Advocates On Why It's So Important To Speak Up

The conversation surrounding mental health has reached a tipping point. While there's still a lot to be said, recent headlines prove mental illness is less of a closeted topic now than ever before. With one in every five Americans currently living with a mental illness, it's about time advocates, community groups, celebrities, and lawmakers alike joined forces to finally remove the stigma. In fact, studies suggest increased support, awareness, and accessibility to proper care combined are key to millions of people receiving the help they deserve.
To find out more about the value of speaking up, Refinery29 talked with three inspiring and influential women — each of whom discussed her own mental health diagnosis — and learned what being an advocate in this space means to them.
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Illustrated by Jean Leblanc.

Elyse Fox

Since early 2017, filmmaker Elyse Fox has remained adamant about changing how society views mental illness. As the founder of Sad Girls Club, a NYC-based organization that fosters camaraderie among millennial women who struggle with mental health, Fox has helped spark a much-needed and productive dialogue about the topic, all while providing resources for those without access to therapy or treatment.
Growing up, what was your understanding of mental health?
"Mental health was never a conversation in my house. We were kind of raised with the rule, 'Whatever happens in this house, stays in this house.' Growing up, my mom was always indoors, in the bed, [whereas] other people’s moms had jobs and active social lives. She never attended any school events or parent-teacher conferences either. It wasn't until right before middle school that I learned about what [having] depression meant. It just seemed like she had very similar characteristics of the condition, but we never spoke about it."
What led to you becoming an advocate for mental health awareness?
"After I graduated college, I moved to Los Angeles and was in an abusive relationship that ultimately led me to try and take my own life for a second time. I was hospitalized for 72 hours up until my birthday. Thankfully, my cousin was already on her way out to L.A. to visit. When she arrived, she came straight to the hospital before packing me up and moving me back to the East Coast to be with my family.
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"At first, not everyone knew what happened. But the people who did know were 100% supportive. This was back in 2015, the year I documented everything [about my mental health struggle] for my film, Conversations With Friends. I released it on the one-year anniversary of my suicide attempt."
How did people react to Conversations With Friends?
"At first, I thought just my friends and close family members would watch it. But after putting up a mini trailer on social media, people were blowing up my phone wanting to know what it was about and asking to see it. When I finally released it, there were girls from all over — London, Paris, and China — who literally said, 'I see myself in your story,' 'How can I be more vulnerable with my group of friends?,' 'How can I talk about these things?'
"It got to the point where I was answering DMs almost every hour, so I decided to make a private — now public — Instagram page called @SadGirlsClub to post about mental health topics. It was just the easiest place to put everything so that we could all learn about mental health issues together."
In what ways has Sad Girls Club evolved since you first started it?
"I started the page in January 2017. Once it was created, I noticed that a lot of us were based in New York City. I decided we could all solve our issues better and together if we could remove the digital screen and talk face to face. I hosted an event shortly after with 15 girls, where I had a therapist come in and talk about anything that anyone wanted to discuss. We live streamed it and got over 23,000 viewers from all over the world, which helped me decide this was something I had to keep consistent. [Sad Girls Club] was something that was needed and people were grateful for it. Since then, we've hosted 14 events in two countries and three different cities. We've serviced over 1,100 girls in real life, and our online presence has grown to include over 34,000 followers."
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Why is it important for you to speak out through the platform?
"I get to tell my story and be honest about it. Sometimes when I'm not feeling well, I'll tell [Sad Girls Club] exactly that, because I still go through things. I want to share as much knowledge about mental health as possible while helping people realize that it's okay to not be 100% good all the time. I'm trying my best to bring girls together, because there's always someone out there who can relate to what they may be going through — even when it seems like the opposite."

I want to share as much knowledge about mental health as possible while helping people realize that it’s okay to not be 100% good all the time.

Elyse Fox
Illustrated by Jean Leblanc.

Lauren Burke

Through her career as a nonprofit founder, a consultant with The Possible LAB, and the CEO of CaseNotes, social change agent Lauren Burke is determined to use her skills in ways that'll reach and uplift others. Channeling that same spirit, in 2017, Burke worked with the Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health initiative, participating in its Beyond Silence documentary to advocate for talking about mental health and not feeling ashamed.
How did your mental health diagnosis impact your life?
"I was misdiagnosed with depression for eight years. Part of it was that I wasn't being honest with my therapist. I was so ashamed that I was having suicidal ideations, self-harming, and abusing alcohol that I wasn't even being honest with myself about the depths to which my [mental illness] was affecting me. I thought that if I could handle raising a million dollars for a nonprofit and arguing big cases in court, it must just be on me that I can't handle my own issues.
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"I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in late January 2016. I thought I'd find a fix and everything would be great. It's only very recently that I realized this is a lifelong diagnosis; it's never going to be just done or fixed. There are going to be days — hopefully fewer than before — that I don't want to get out of bed. But the more I speak out about it and the more resources I find, the more I feel like I'm not alone. I'm building my support network to lay a really great foundation, so when those difficult times come, I'll have what I need to get through them."
What made you decide to speak up publicly about your mental health?
"Immediately after [being diagnosed], I decided to write about it for [a prestigious online publication], because I had been honored and profiled by it in the past. I thought it was important to speak up about it, because I think what's really problematic in today's society is how we have all these facades of perfection. [They] plague us through social media and leave us feeling like we always have to be 'on' and perfect. As somebody who had already been viewed as successful in society, I wanted to be honest about where I was at, showing my 'flaws' and 'weaknesses' to hopefully encourage other 'successful' people to show theirs — and to let others who may be struggling know that it's okay.
"In November of 2016, I connected with the Be Vocal documentary film team. I was a little apprehensive at first, because there's a lot of ways in which [society] tells mental health stories that are super dramatic and focused on the negative. I wanted to make sure I was working with a team that was showing and highlighting the strengths of individuals living with mental health diagnoses as full humans. After speaking with them, it became apparent to me that Be Vocal was doing just that. The filmmakers were incredible and made me feel like I had control over my story."
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The more I speak out about it and the more resources I find, the more I feel like I’m not alone.

Lauren Burke
What was the response like after the film debuted?
"When I thought about being open and vocal about my mental health, I wasn't thinking about how it would help just me; I was really thinking about how it would help others. So many women have reached out to me after seeing the film and have told me, 'Because you're not ashamed to talk about your diagnosis, it makes me feel like I don’t have to feel ashamed about mine either.' Or, 'I've always thought I couldn’t do X-Y-Z because of my diagnosis, but seeing you in the film made me realize that I can.'
"Participating in the film has also led to me traveling and speaking about mental health across the country, including on Capitol Hill and at various conferences. Just getting to talk about it [in public] has been huge, because mental health is something that affects each and every one of us, every single day. We're all in this together."
Illustrated by Jean Leblanc.

Latria Graham

Writer and editor Latria Graham has covered a wide variety of topics over the years, from chitlins to NASCAR. But social issues like race, class, and mental health are her true niche. As a self-proclaimed cultural critic, she takes pride in challenging the status quo through journalism and sharing from her own personal experience.
Do you remember your first experience with mental illness?
"[As a child,] I was taller and wider than the other little girls my age. I played sports on a boys' team, which was a little bit more rigorous, but my family was concerned about my weight. I was chubby — not the clinical definition of obese at that point, but there was always this feeling of needing to be smaller so clothes would fit better. By the time I was in fourth grade, I started skipping meals and experimenting with self-injurious behaviors. Cutting [myself] became a crutch to squash anxiety in a very different way.
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"In high school, I didn’t just stop eating, I started binging and purging, too. Ultimately, I was diagnosed with bulimia when I was 16. Back then, nobody talked about body image or size in the media. My mom was a fashion designer, and there were always these pictures of really glamorous, thin people around. I didn’t see people with visible belly lines; there weren’t many people of color in these magazines either. Everything felt very curated and aesthetically intentional — both of which edited out people like me. It was like I didn't exist, but I wanted to pretty damn bad.
"Then when I was 19, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In a lot of ways it made sense. All the self-regulatory things I was trying were my way of dealing with my 'ups' and 'downs.' As an adult in recovery, I can see the connection between the two [diagnoses] and how I was dealing with everything in tandem."
What made you decide to ask for help?
"[In college,] I hosted a dinner party, and after everybody had left, I cleaned up. There was still some ice cream left over, so I ate it and went to sleep. I woke up with my head in the toilet, having realized that I had eaten the entire gallon. I couldn’t remember what happened — if I had either fallen back asleep at the toilet or blacked out.
"There’s this idea that plus-size people can’t get eating disorders or that eating disorders among plus-size people 'aren’t that serious.' I felt like the physical dangers of them didn’t apply to me, but that particular ice-cream incident made it very real. That was the first time I thought I was going to actually die."
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My hope...is that someone who doesn’t have a ‘word’ for anxiety will read my description of what it feels like and then [be able to] identity that feeling and talk to somebody about it.

Latria Graham
What has contributed to your success post-diagnosis?
"I have super manic, very efficient, high-functioning moments. And then I have moments that bottom out. But how I maintain them now is different. I make sure to eat and get enough sleep. I've learned to tell people 'no,' realizing that I don’t have to be well liked anymore. I also realized that exercise isn’t a torture device; it can be useful and a lot of freaking fun. Because I have survived, I'm not scared anymore.
"Throughout everything, I learned to fall in love with writing and turn it into my career. I started out editing classmates' papers, but by the time I was 20, I started penning pieces for national magazines. Writing about everything helped me separate who I was from who I could be. Revisiting the subject [of mental health] over time, too, has truly allowed me to see how far I've come on my own journey."
What do you hope to achieve with your writing career? Do you see yourself as an activist?
"I don't write for accolades or praise — even in my feature reporting, that idea is secondary. 90% of what I write is to help somebody understand a concept or event that [may feel] immaterial to them. And that includes pain. My hope — in putting my writing all out there — is that someone who doesn't have a 'word' for anxiety will read my description of what it feels like and then [be able to] identity that feeling and talk to somebody about it. [My hope] is that people of color will see someone who looks like them talking about things that are considered to be taboo by our elders, and they won't be afraid to express what may be happening to them. I get emails from people saying those sorts of things, saying that an essay [of mine] helped them get help. That's how I know I’ve done my job."
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This story has been edited and condensed for clarity.
If you are thinking about suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
If you are experiencing an emotional or mental health crisis and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
If you are struggling with an eating disorder and are in need of support, please call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NEDA” to 741741.
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