When Elyse Fox greets newcomers to her Sad Girls Club monthly meet-up at Inscape, a meditation space in the Flatiron district of New York, she bypasses the women’s extended hands and leans in for hugs. She’s 27 years old and wearing light grey leggings, gold hoop earrings, and a navy cotton t-shirt stitched with the words “Sad Girls Club” in primary colors and knotted at her naval. Sometimes her hair is bleached or straightened or twisted in a fat knot on the crown of her head, but today it cascades naturally over her shoulders in a mass of little curls.
Fox started Sad Girls Club in February as a fun and comfortable way for millennial women and women of color, like herself, to talk about mental illness. Her first promotional post on Instagram, where the club now has over 15,000 followers, promised “snacks, games and girl talk.” Since then, Sad Girls Club meet-ups have taken the form of a poetry slam, an art therapy project and now a meditation session. Fox wants to host yoga and a barbecue and she recently started a Kickstarter campaign to take the club on the road, though it didn’t meet her intended goal.
One-by-one this Saturday morning, eight women of various backgrounds trickle into Inscape. Often, Fox worries no one will show. Several of the women know Fox from childhood or through networking – she is a filmmaker – but the majority stumbled across the club online. One woman found the Sad Girls Club Instagram and decided to attend because “some shit happened.” Another wrestles with anxiety. There is a woman from Puerto Rico and one from the Bay Area. Several of them have shown up looking timid, knowing no one else in the group.
Last December, Fox shared her own depression publicly for the first time through a video on Vimeo called “Conversations with Friends.” It opens with a kaleidoscope close-up on Fox’s face. “Depression is something I’ve felt I’ve always had, but I’ve never been able to put these feelings into words,” she narrates. The video cuts to scenes she’s filmed documentary-style of her shopping, partying, and eating with friends, often also talking politics. It flip-flops between portraits of enjoyment and moments of sadness.
“I looked like I was living my best life and I thought, ‘This is so fake,’” she says later about her digital and online persona, which led her to want to produce a raw and vulnerable video.
After the video went live, about 300 people reached out to Fox asking for advice. The reactions inspired her to start Sad Girls Club. In the film, she focuses on her own experience, wondering how family and friends haven’t noticed her lows. Her father, a chef named Kevin Cox, didn’t realize his daughter grappled with depression until he saw the video.
“I was kind of surprised but it made things come together,” he says. “Now things make sense with some interactions or a depression episode when she was feeling down.”
Growing up in Brooklyn as an honor-roll student, Fox witnessed her mother’s inability to get out of bed for 12 hours at a time, though there was never a family conversation about her mother’s depression. When Fox was 11, she felt those same feelings of isolation, but kept them to herself for the next 16 years. Looking back, she hadn’t seen women of color who openly acknowledged their illness.
“I didn’t want to be outcast,” she says. “I thought people would think I would be the stereotypical mental hospital ticking time bomb and I didn’t want people to shy away from me. I thought guys wouldn’t want to date me. I like to let people know they can treat me like a normal human being. It’s not something you should be ashamed of.”
At Inscape, the women emerge from the meditation pod sleepy and sluggish, having just been guided through a “deep sound journey,” where they laid on mats listening to vibrations. Meditation has become part of Fox’s self care routine for coping with depression. The group gathers round a carrot-colored elixir being served in the seating area to discuss their experiences. One woman felt a panic attack coming on at the beginning, but then relaxed and melted into the gongs. Another perceived tingles creeping along her arms. Someone relays her floating sensation. Fox listens and records a live video for Instagram.
The stigma around mental illness persists, especially for women. According to the World Health Organization, common disorders like depression and anxiety affect one in three people – the majority of whom are women – with depression being the most frequently encountered mental health problem in women overall. The organization attributes these statistics to harm caused by gender roles, such as gender-based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage and income inequality. A paper released by WHO titled, “Gender Disparities in Mental Health” states, “gender based expectations regarding proneness to emotional problems in women” helps to “reinforce social stigma and constrain help seeking along stereotypical lines.”
“Women in general are categorized as being crazy or emotional or hysterical,” says Shira Burstein, a psychotherapist Fox met through a friend and now brings to Sad Girls Club meetings as an expert voice. “Back in the day when women were having anxiety, they were treated very poorly. Even though we’ve evolved in society, the idea that women are unhinged quickly diminishes the credibility of true mental illness diagnosis.”
“Sad Girls Club made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” says Lametrius White, Fox’s friend who struggles with depression. “It’s opening up my eyes to a lot of young women around me that experience the same things I do and it’s O.K., you don’t feel crazy, you don’t feel isolated or alone. You feel part of a community and it’s great to have these platforms and safe spaces.”
After the women reawaken with the help of the elixir, Fox leaves to go to temple and then a karaoke birthday party, where she feels most comfortable watching from the couches. Several women hang back to exchange numbers with promises to text each other. One by one they head home or off to lunch, each waving and saying, “It was nice to meet you!”
“I wish I would have spoken about it sooner,” says Fox.