Elyse Fox, 27, first experienced symptoms of depression in high school.
“I started feeling sad, but I didn’t know why,” Fox says. During that time, she hoped someone might notice her sadness and reach out to her. But no one did.
Fox and her family never discussed mental health, either. All of this only made it harder to open up.
By the time Fox reached her 20s, her depression was unbearable. “I knew I needed help after a failed suicide attempt,” she says. Fox ended up cold calling physicians, looking for professional advice.
But Fox isn’t the only woman of color to experience depression alone and unnoticed. Compared to the general population, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And only 25 percent of these individuals receive professional care.
Still, depression rates continue to rise, especially among adolescent girls. This calls for an even larger need of mental health education and accessible treatment.
Recent research published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that the number of teenage girls with depression has grown immensely since 2011. And since 2005, almost 500,000 more young adults have signs of depression. Researchers suggest that social media is one factor contributing to this growing problem.
It’s not surprising that Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat influence how young women feel about themselves. These channels trigger feelings of insecurity by making it seem as if their peers are more thin, popular, and successful than they are.
It’s hurtful for teens to experience rejection, but these sites exacerbate their anguish by providing pictorial evidence of “everyone else’s” fun.
Can we turn a tide — often fueled by social media — with social media?
But social media isn’t going away. So Fox is taking action by flipping the script on social media in a positive manner.
While struggling with depression, Fox used social media sites like Twitter and Tumblr to write about her sadness and depression. She’d often use the hashtag #SadGirlElyse to describe how she was feeling.
Fox even documented her depression in a film called “Conversations with Friends,” prompting girls and young women to reach out to her and share their experiences with depression, too.
In February of this year, Fox started an Instagram page called The Sad Girls Club, providing emotional support for “sad girls” everywhere.
“I wanted to develop resources for girls that would have helped me when I was younger,” Fox says.
Despite the name, Fox’s club isn’t merely a “misery loves company” meeting place. “I used to suffix my tweets and Tumblr posts with the hashtag #SadGirlElyse because I didn’t know I was depressed and anxious, but I knew I was sad,” Fox explains.
While not everyone is familiar with depression, anxiety, or PTSD, the “sad girl” is relatable to many women from different cultures and backgrounds.
“Women of all ages relate to sadness. I also wanted to reclaim the word as a way to emphasize there’s no happy spin on depression,” Fox says.
How do you have a conversation without diluting the message?
With more than 16,500 Instagram followers, the club reaches girls and young women across the globe, encouraging conversations around a topic that brings many people shame.
Discussing mental illness is often stigmatized, but Fox believes millennials are talking about it more openly. However, she thinks the conversations are often sanitized and bring humor into a topic that’s in no way funny.
She hopes the Sad Girls Club provides a welcome space for more honest and authentic discussions. “Depression is a real illness, and should be treated kindly,” Fox says.
The club’s Instagram page features images of self-care mantras, video footage from live events, and photos describing mental health disorders like ADHD, eating disorders, and depression.
A recent post says, “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” Below the caption, Fox invites followers to engage in a larger dialogue about the importance of “me” time. One follower responded by saying, “I bought a creative journal I’m gonna fill out,” while another shared, “I needed this quote today.”
How to express yourself and your depression in real life
Along with the Instagram page, Fox hosts Instagram live events and in-person Sad Girl meetups in Brooklyn, New York.
For these live events, Fox co-hosts with Shira Burstein, a clinical social worker. During the meetings, Fox and Burstein discuss ways to find affordable mental health resources and the importance of self-care. They also provide time for members to ask questions.
Fox describes the Sad Girl in-person meetups as a “therapy sandwich” that offers a trifecta of wellness activities, like a creative poetry slam or meditation followed by a snack and a group discussion.
Her most recent event provided art therapy in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. Video footage on Instagram shows women painting with watercolors and using art to describe what depression feels like.
“Expressing one’s feelings through art or a creative activity provides a sense of safety, which helps make our events appealing to every girl,” she says.
Peering into the future, she hopes to start a Sad Girls tour and bring her meetups to cities across the nation. She also wants to create a Sad Girl’s curriculum that’s taught in middle schools, high schools, and colleges across the country to normalize and destigmatize conversations about mental health.
“One in every five people has a mental illness. I want to reach more women, especially women of color, building a community that uplifts everyone,” Fox says.
Fox hopes the Sad Girls Club will be a mental health mirror where young women can connect with others who share similar struggles and care for each other, too.
Because, unlike many channels that appear on social media, the Sad Girls Club isn’t about isolating and one-upping one another. These club doors are opens for everyone.
Juli Fraga is a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco. She graduated with a PsyD from University of Northern Colorado and attended a postdoctoral fellowship at UC Berkeley. Passionate about women’s health, she approaches all her sessions with warmth, honesty, and compassion.