“I was doing all these amazing things … but I was still struggling.”
It’s a common misconception that people’s circumstances dictate their mental health. Many believe once they get the life they’ve always wanted—like landing their dream job or moving away from the town they dislike—that all of their mental health problems will disappear.
Elyse Fox, filmmaker and founder of Sad Girls Club, thought the same thing when she scored an incredible media job with ABC. “I thought that all my problems would be solved,” she recalls. “I quickly realized that that didn’t make me happy. Nothing actually made me happy for a long time. It was always just temporary fulfillment.”
That was before Fox understood that what she was experiencing was depression. Part of the problem was the stubborn stigma against having a mental health issue—particularly among African American and immigrant cultures—that inhibits people from talking about these treatable disorders.
“My mom is Caribbean and my dad is American. That caused a really strict household growing up,” says Fox. “I was taught in the household, ‘You don’t cry outside. Whatever happens in this house stays in this house.’”
But just as importantly, Fox didn’t see people with her symptoms represented on film and TV. “You’ll see a show with a girl in a psych ward and she’s in all white. She’s in a straight jacket, and that’s literally what I thought I had to be if I had mental health issues,” says Fox. “I didn’t really make the connection because there weren’t images of girls who looked like me.”
Despite the stigma, Africans Americans are 10 percent more likely to report “severe psychological distress” than Non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health. They are also more likely to report chronic feelings of sadness and hopelessness—key symptoms of major depressive disorder.
However, African Americans are less likely to seek depression treatment, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. This might be caused by a number of factors: stigma, distrust of the health care system, lack of access to mental health care resources, and not having health insurance.
Ending the Silence
After years of struggling silently with her depression, Fox had a suicide attempt while living in Los Angeles on December 22, 2015. This ended up being a pivotal moment for Fox. “That’s when I decided I’m actually gonna get help and change my life for the better,” she says.
Since 1999, rates of suicide have risen by more than 30 percent in 25 of the 50 states, reports the CDC. Depression and other mental health disorders are a primary risk factor for suicide, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Now that Fox recognized what she was dealing with, she decided to open up about it and be real about what she was going through. “I was doing all these amazing things,” she says. “Yeah, I look like I’m happy. I look like I’m doing great things.… [But] I was still struggling during these times.”
So Fox put her filmmaking skills to work and created her short film, “Conversations with Friends.” In the film, she documents a year of her life with depression, starting with the suicide attempt, to change the narrative of living with a mental illness. “It was my way of ‘coming out’ to my family about my depression,” says Fox.
Fox’s film was released in December 2016, and she received a wave of responses from women who related to her story. As a result of the positive response, Fox founded Sad Girls Club, a mental health community for women. (Learn more about the impact of Sad Girls Club on women around the world here.)
“I think now that I’m more open about my depression, it’s definitely made life a lot easier,” says Fox. “I’m able to reach out to friends when I am experiencing the lows, and I’m also able to support my friends when they’re going through things and see those similarities.” Here are more tools Fox recommends to manage depression.
African American Mental Health. Washington, DC: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Accessed on October 25, 2018 at https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Diverse-Communities/African-Americans.)
Gary FA. Stigma: barrier to mental health care among ethnic minorities. Issues Ment Health Nurs. 2005 Dec;26(10):979-99.
Mental health and African Americans. Bethesda, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health. (Accessed on October 25, 2018 at https://minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=24.)
Suicide in America: frequently asked questions. National Institute of Mental Health. (Accessed on October 25, 2018 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-faq/index.shtml.)
Suicide rising across the US. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Accessed on October 25, 2018 at https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/infographic.html.)