Dior Vargas has made it her mission to destigmatize mental health and improve accessibility to wellness resources for all who need them. She founded her company, Dior Vargas LLC, to increase awareness of the challenges of living with a mental illness—and to change the perception of people facing those challenges.
“Growing up, I didn’t really see any representations of people with a mental illness, or if I did, the representations were very negative—asylums, violence, people to keep away from,” Vargas says. “I think it might have been easier for me if I had seen someone who was accomplishing things and living with a mental illness.”
Through Dior Vargas LLC, Vargas seeks to be that person for others. She travels across the United States to speak at institutions of higher education as well as for-profit companies about her own experiences navigating and advocating for mental health. She also discusses how others can advocate for themselves, wellness accessibility, diversity within mental health, and related topics. Her activism and the advice that she offers businesses are contributing to a broader cultural shift, one that creates space for people of diverse backgrounds and encourages them to join the conversation.
As a child, Vargas didn’t hear much discussion of mental health, at home or elsewhere. The lack of openness around the topic left her with a skewed perspective toward mental illness, including her own. “I felt ashamed, for so many reasons,” she admits. “I felt like it was a sign of weakness or something that only privileged people had the time to experience.”
While studying at Smith College, Vargas interned at Meridians, a feminist interdisciplinary journal affiliated with the school. The internship piqued her interest in the publishing industry, and she went on to obtain an MS in publishing from Pace University in 2011. After interning at the Feminist Press, she began temping at book publisher Random House and was eventually hired full time.
Her specialization in e-books at Random House opened the door for Vargas to move to bookseller Barnes & Noble to work on digital magazines for the company’s NOOK device. However, with the NOOK losing significant ground in the marketplace, Vargas soon found herself out of a job.
“I was unemployed for about a year,” she says. “I had to move back in with my parents and figure out Medicaid. The whole process was really overwhelming, but the experience gave me insight into how inaccessible health, and specifically mental health, can be.”
By that point, Vargas had started to get more involved in activism. She began receiving speaking invitations following the 2014 launch of her acclaimed “People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project,” a series of photographs of people of color who live with a mental illness, which Vargas later released in book form. A year later, the Obama White House recognized her as a Champion of Change for Disability Advocacy Across Generations—an award that she considers a career highlight.
Since then, Vargas has continued to expand her reach. Even so, the process of translating her passion for mental health into a business venture didn’t come naturally to her. “I’m still trying to identify with the idea that I’m an entrepreneur and a business owner. I never thought that my work was something that I would get paid for,” she says. “I always viewed my business as a side hustle, but I would love to make it my sole profession.”
In the meantime, Vargas has continued to develop her professional expertise through roles at mental health nonprofits and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She also completed her master of public health degree at New York University between 2017 and 2019 to strengthen her knowledge of mental health from a policy standpoint.
Furthermore, Vargas has capitalized on the growing interest in mental health and wellness in the corporate sector. Whereas many of her early speaking engagements took place at colleges and universities, she now regularly appears at both education institutions and at corporations: the latter engagements, she explains, are opportunities to underline the importance of normalizing mental health conversations in the workplace.
“People need to see that it’s okay to talk about mental health day to day,” she says. “If employees see the CEO or another person in leadership be open about mental health, it shows them how genuine and authentic the company is about making sure that people feel okay talking about it.”
Beyond bringing discussions of mental health into everyday interactions, Vargas points to mental health day policies as one way for businesses to actualize their support of employees. Above all else, she notes that it is critical to approach wellness with compassion, which means caring about the person over the bottom line.
That personal element remains at the center of Vargas’s work. When she connects with people and listens to their experiences, it reminds her why she does what she does. “I’m just trying to help people,” she says. “That’s why I started Dior Vargas LLC in the first place, to destigmatize mental health and to let people know that they aren’t alone.”
Stronger Together: Connecting the Mental Health and Disability Communities
At speaking engagements, Dior Vargas often points out to her audience that mental illness qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She shares this information to raise awareness of available resources and accommodations and to strengthen ties between the mental health and disability communities. The latter goal also motivated her to call greater attention to mental health concerns as a board member for the volunteer organization National Coalition of Latinxs with Disabilities.