Elyse Fox Is the Mental Health Advocate Helping Women of Color Feel Seen – Online and IRL

Mitchiko Khem

Content warning: The following story contains mentions of suicide.

There are so many aspects of health that disproportionately affect the Black community, and yet less than six percent of US doctors are Black – a deficit that only further harms public health. Many of the Black folks who work in healthcare have dedicated their careers to combatting inequities. That’s why, this Black History Month, PS is crowning our Black Health Heroes: physicians, sexologists, doulas, and more who are advocating for the Black community in their respective fields. Meet them all here.

Elyse Fox started Sad Girls Club in 2017 when she was at her lowest. She had attempted suicide and was looking for a community of Black women with whom she could talk about mental health.

“I always call it an accident. I’m an accidental activist,” she says of how Sad Girls Club began. “But in a way that feels like this is my calling, and this is what’s true to me.”

What she didn’t know was that the nonprofit organization she started in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, would reach more than one million women and girls of color (and counting) who are dealing with the same mental health challenges she has faced. “While I was navigating my healing journey, I was looking to platforms of like-minded people, women, who look like me, have similar stories, were from the hood, but were still navigating things, and I didn’t find any of that. I couldn’t find a place where I saw myself reflected,” she tells POPSUGAR. “So instead of complaining about it, I just decided to create that space, not knowing what it would grow into today.”

Today, Sad Girls Club is both an online platform and an in-person community for women and girls of color. It provides mental health services to those who don’t have access to therapy and treatment, aims to help remove the stigma associated with mental health, and creates spaces where young women can know they aren’t alone.

Read more to find about how Fox protects her own mental health amid her important work, what her day-to-day looks like, and who her personal health hero is.

POPSUGAR: It’s still very much taboo in the Black community to talk about mental health. What inspired you to create something that few people were doing at the time?

Elyse Fox: Honestly, I thought everybody was going to think I was so weird. I felt like my experiences were the only experience.

“It’s like this relay race of women . . . who want to see everybody win.”

And I really had a lot of shame around it, even starting [Sad Girls Club], I was like, I might just have one other person by my side, but that’s fine, at least one other person had somebody else to talk to. It was definitely, definitely scary. Starting something and putting it online is one thing, but starting something and then running into friends in person and them knowing that you have this experience was a whole different game.

And I was honestly surprised at how I was embraced, and also how many people in my close circle were going through the same things as me but never had the confidence to talk about it until I started speaking about it. So it was kind of like that thread of, when you run a relay race, you pass the baton, and you see someone going faster than you were, you’re cheering them on, and they pass the baton, and you both are cheering that other person on – that’s what Sad Girls Club kind of is. It’s like this relay race of women, or just a community of people, who want to see everybody win. They want everyone to find peace and community within their mental health.

PS: What’s one specific memory since you’ve started Sad Girls Club that has really stuck with you?

EF: I would say our first event. I hosted it; I was working at a membership club at the time, and I was calling in all the favors. Like, I need food, I need this, I need that, can I use this room? I brought in a therapist from Connecticut, she worked pro bono with us, and we had about 15 women join. And I was like, this is such a success, which it was. We had women who were affluent, from the Upper East Side, to girls who were from East New York. And girls traveled, too.

There was one girl who came from the DMV [Washington Metropolitan] area, and she was the youngest, she was 16, and she was like, “Please don’t let this be an Instagram trend, my generation needs this, and you have to continue doing this.” And I was like, “Oh, we did the event, I did the thing, now I can move on.” But I think that was that reminder, this is what I’m meant to do, and in order to create that sustainable change, I have to keep going and keep providing this space for people. So I remember that. That was February 2017, so going on seven years. I’m like, this is what really keeps me going.

PS: What’s the most surprising thing you’ve come across since starting Sad Girls Club?

EF: The amount of people who, beyond myself, love Sad Girls Club. Because for a while, I thought, “Oh, people like my story, that’s why they like Sad Girls Club.” People are like, “No, I like Sad Girls Club, I don’t even know who you are.” And that makes me feel so good that I don’t have to be attached to something and it can grow and be this great nonprofit.

And then, the celebrity appeal. I never would’ve thought celebrities like SZA – and Beyoncé posted us one time, and Drake, we were in his music video. I never thought that we would have that reach with so many different demographics. But I feel like I’ve seen these things in my dreams and now I’m bringing them to life, and I’m like, if I could see it, if I could dream it, it literally can happen, and it can happen for anybody.

PS: How do you protect your mental health when you’re working on these important issues?

EF: I’m not afraid to sign off and be vulnerable with my team and say, “I just need a day,” or, “I’m taking half a day.” I’m very, very honest with my needs, and if I just need a day to just go to the movies, I’m going to do that. If I’m depleting myself to the point where I’m a shell of myself to help out others, then I’m not really doing my mental health a service, because I’m not going to be here too long. So I just make sure I’m able to pour into myself before I need to be poured into.

“Sad Girls Club is changing the trajectory of how mental health is perceived within the Black community.”

PS: What does a typical day look like for you?

EF: I don’t want anyone to think that this happened just overnight. But this is something I’ve been working through and with my therapist for years, is to create an actual routine that helps me or that’s sustainable just for me. So I’m in this place now where I’m not on social media before 11 a.m., and I’m not on social media after 9 p.m. That way, I get to start my day just for me, do things that I need to do to make myself feel good. I also still experience depression, so that also relieves that pressure of me having to check in with everyone else but myself first. So I do a self check-in in the morning.

Even when I am at my worst, my most depressed, I never fail at doing my skin-care routine. It’s something that I’ve been consistent with. When you’re doing your skin-care routine, you can’t be on your phone. You can be talking to someone on the phone, but you can’t be actively looking at other people’s lives. That is a space of peace and calm for me that I always do in the morning and at night.

I start answering emails, check in with my team, we got a Slack channel . . . we have a group text. The group text and the Slack channel are two completely different vibes. So I’ll check the group text, and I’ll check the Slack channel from my team, and see what it’s hitting for. And then I start my day. I’ve begun doing this one thing that’s been a game changer for me. I have this task list. It only has six bullet points; these are the top six things that I need to do today. I’m not overloading my day, because it’s like, yes, I’m helping people, but if I’m drained by helping people, then what am I really doing?

So I have a hierarchy of tasks that I need to do throughout the day, and then I get to them as best as I can. I also have a 4-year-old, so as much as I can do through the day, I get through. And that helps me not feel guilty about anything because I know exactly what I have to look forward to the next day, and I know exactly what I’ve accomplished already. It’s like that physical representation of what I’ve done.

PS: In what ways does being a mental health advocate and the work you’re doing with Sad Girls Club specifically impact the Black community? Why is it important that Black folks are working on this issue?

EF: Sad Girls Club is changing the trajectory of how mental health is perceived within the Black community. By one, removing the veil of the stigma, and then two, showing that vulnerability is OK. I think we’re flipping the narrative on what we were programmed to think as far as our wellness, and really putting a new definition to it in a way that makes you feel prideful, confident, and aligned with the world.

There’s so much power in numbers. The more you see representation of where you want to be, or what you deem as successful, or this is where I want to be in my mental health journey, the more you would thrive to be in that space. So I always say, yes, I’m this one person, I’m a light-skinned Black woman from Brooklyn, but I want to highlight every single woman, every single person of color, who is experiencing mental health issues, who wants to tell their [story], wants to shed a light, who wants to host a workshop. Because the more representation we have, the better it is for young women to see themselves in the future of mental health, and to see it’s OK to navigate these issues.

PS: Who is your personal health hero?

EF: I would say the youth, my son specifically, because I know that I have to be here in the best state to create the change that I want to create, and also to be the mom that I want to be, and to be the woman that I want to be. My son is a physical reminder of that. I want this kid to not have to ever suffer, or to be bullied for these things. I want it to just be normalized. I want the conversation to be normalized in mental health. He’s that representation for me.

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