Battling the social stigma surrounding mental illness one Instagram post at a time
Olivia Mann/THE REVIEW
In Room 100 of Kirkbride Lecture Hall, a bulleted PowerPoint slide read, “canceling plans, face masks, cleaning up personal space, lifestyle cleanse.” It may have seemed like a mere list of ways to practice self-care when living on a budget, but these low-budget self-care tactics are actually a small part of a much bigger picture: Sad Girls Club (SGC). In February 2017, Elyse Fox founded SGC, an online and in real life (IRL) platform with the goal of bringing together girls with mental illnesses.
Fox, a 28-year-old rising activist and New York-based filmmaker, founded SGC in February 2017. SGC was a knee-jerk reaction to the cascade of emails, direct messages and texts Fox received when she released a first-person documentary, “Conversations with Friends,” which chronicled what she felt was the most calamitous year of her own ongoing struggle with mental illness, namely depression. For Fox, “Conversations with Friends” was a modus to “come out” about depression to her family and friends. But what it sparked is a revolution in awareness of mental illness.
The Promoters of Wellness peer educators, a group of students who volunteer through Student Wellness and Health Promotion, invited Fox to speak as a part of its annual Wellness Speaker Series. According to Elizabeth Watkins, a senior studying nutritional science and agriculture and natural resources who serves as the chair of the 2017–18 Wellness Speaker Services, Fox’s invitation stemmed from the demonstrated popularity and affirmative evaluations of past speakers dealing with mental illness.
During her talk, Fox recounted some of worst experiences of her life, including a sexual assault and a violent gun crime during her college years at Buffalo State College. Trauma from these events compounded on top of relationship issues with her then-boyfriend, culminating in two suicide attempts.
“I had flashbacks about everything that had happened, and I never really got the help I actually needed,” Fox said. “I tried to seek therapy, but I didn’t have the correct insurance or it was always too high [cost] for me to get an appointment or consultation to see a therapist. I just felt, like, kind of doomed. When things hurt me or affected me in a negative way, it just felt like it was the end of the world.”
Fox described herself as “socially awkward” when she returned to New York City following her second suicide attempt. Seeking a way to be present, but not have to be called upon for small talk, Fox gravitated toward video. Reviewing all of the footage, Fox thought she would make a “show-off video.” But a week before Fox released the video, she consciously chose to shift the narrative.
“I wanted to show people that, yeah, I was doing all of these cool things, but I was still feeling at my lowest, and I’m still so depressed — I still feel like I shouldn’t be alive right now,” Fox said. “I wanted to show my family and friends that you can look OK and you can look like you’re having your best time, but you can also be at your worst internally.”
The inadvertent effect of “Conversations with Friends” was girls reaching out to Fox to share their own stories and to seek words of encouragement about their own mental illness. It was for these girls that Fox created SGC as a digital platform for girls to feel comfortable speaking out openly about their individual struggle with mental illness. SGC materialized organically from Fox’s unabating struggle with depression. And Instagram, with its open access, millennial sensibility and hashtags, became SGC’s platform.
“Almost immediately, my inbox was filled with girls from all around the world who just saw themselves in my story they said that they put on a smile, they put on a mask or something, basically to impress their friends and family,” Fox said. “And I was just like ‘Oh damn, I thought everyone would think I was a weirdo.’ I started a club from that film, I basically told all the girls who were messaging me to join this Instagram page that I was going to start, it was going to be called Sad Girls Club, and I’ll answer anybody’s questions.”
SGC was about creating a platform for girls to know they are not alone and it is OK to be not OK. Ultimately, SGC’s success as a digital space heralded its flourishment as an IRL community.
Today, SGC boasts almost 30,000 followers on its Instagram. It is run primarily by Fox and her assistant, Em Odesser. On Instagram, SGC offers a connection to a virtual community of support. A curated selection of photos and videos present a myriad of tips, statistics and words of support geared toward girls dealing with mental illness. Think of a mashup of mental illness memes, tiny self-care tips and down-to-earth zines. This virtual community of support is then supplemented by impromptu meetups in and around New York City, like clothing swaps, poetry slams and art therapy.
Fox also sees SGC as a resource to fill some of the gaps she saw in the kinds of services that were being offered; for example, SGC connects girls with free or low-cost licensed therapists. In that same vein, SGC responds to how some women with mental illness experience added levels of stigma and intersectional oppression. As a woman of color, Fox has firsthand knowledge of how high costs and a lack of resources are towering obstacles for women of color.
While SGC calls New York City home, Fox is passionate about taking it on the road. She has launched an ambassador program to make SGC accessible to girls in metropolises across the country. Fox is passionate about taking it around the globe, too. In January, SGC held its first international event in London and #SadGirlsClubBangkok will be its first international ambassador launch.
“I know that Sad Girls Club is helping so many girls, because they know they’re not alone,” Fox said. “I couldn’t even imagine what would happen if someone saw the word ‘depression’ and thought they had it and that they were the only [one] and not knowing who to turn to for help. We need a sense of belonging. It just makes it 100 times easier if you know someone is going through the exact same thing as you.”