Brooklyn-born filmmaker Elyse Fox wants to destroy the social stigma surrounding depression. "I don't want to sensationalize depression or mental health," the 27-year-old told Broadly. "I just want to make it more normal to talk about." To attempt this momentous task, Fox founded Sad Girls Club, an online and in-person club for girls to find community around living with mental health problems.
The club's name comes from an oft-encountered internet trope: the sad girl. Nowadays, it's easy to spot one on Instagram from her highly-curated shots of period blood splatters or semi-nude, highly erotic, and strangely cropped body shots. Even more telling than their pink-tinged aesthetics are their captions about depression. But earlier iterations of these sad girls in the 2000s were fully committed to Tumblr, writing long posts about misery ending with a quick "LOL" and reblogging Sylvia Plath quotes (or, for the more adventurous, Anne Sexton poems). Fox knows this sad girl well—she used to be one.
In her early twenties, Fox would write drawn-out Tumblr posts about her depression, signing off with a personal nickname: Sad Girl Elyse. "Sometimes I would even hashtag my posts with #SadGirlElyse, it was a lot," she said. But as sad girls—along with the rest of the internet—migrated from Tumblr to Instagram, Fox shed her sad girl image and replaced it with one of a young creative. "I'm still sad, it's just not my entire internet brand," she explained.
Looking back now, Fox sees that behind her sad girl digital persona was a young woman who needed help. "I'm first generation Caribbean so [mental health awareness] wasn't a thing growing up," she explained. "I was diagnosed as depressed, but it was something that was never spoken about, even when I tried to bring it up. It was like, 'Are you getting good grades? Are you going to grow up and be a doctor?' That was all that really mattered."
"The reality was, I was sad as fuck and needed additional help," she said. Today, she's determined to be a resource to any girl in need. "I want to let girls know that it's totally normal that you're going through [depression]," said Fox. "You are not alone."
The creation of the Sad Girls Club was not planned, but rather emerged naturally from Fox's own continued battle with depression.
"[Last year] was the worst year [of my depression] and I had just left an abusive relationship," she explained. "It just so happened that I had all this footage of my year." The filmmaker then took this footage and created her first personal film: a documentary released last December about her year with depression, titled A Conversation With Friends.
Immediately after the film's release, girls who had seen the documentary started reaching out to Fox personally. "So many girls were contacting me saying, 'I'm going through the same thing, can I vent to you about this?'" she said. Eventually, the continuous flow of inquiries grew so large that Fox had to set up a separate email address where girls could contact her anonymously. "Girls from London, Paris, all over were emailing me," said Fox. "They just needed an outlet."
Through these interactions, Fox says she was able to learn about what kinds of help these girls needed. Some girls were simply seeking a friend, while others wanted advice on treatment. "So many said they couldn't even think about going to therapy because it was so expensive," she added. In these correspondences, many girls described their feelings of isolation. While Fox responded to each girl individually—sometimes even referring them to local, professional mental health resources—she wanted to create something larger and more concrete. "I wanted to bring all these girls together to discuss and create a community within the mental health world," she said.
"One day I told the girls: I'm going to start something. It's going to be called Sad Girls Club and it can be like a real life therapy discussion with all of us," Fox explained. "After this, I was able to ask around and found a therapist, Shira Burstein, who came and said, 'Let's create a curriculum. I'll speak to these girls for as long as you need and I want to be a part of the club.'"
Sad Girls Club held its first in-person meeting last month in Manhattan coworking space, The Wing. The meeting began with Fox describing her own experience with depression, followed by the club's volunteer therapist, Burstein, who shared information about natural remedies for depression and other ways to cope. Fox then opened up the floor to questions. "It was very much an open forum," she said. "The girls felt free to ask whatever they want. Like is weed good for depression, what about acid trips?"
Fox streamed the session through Art Hoe Collective—a movement self-described as "started by queer people of color to provide a space for all creatives of color"—on Facebook Live, where she could see real-time reactions. "Commenting were girls from the Bahamas, girls in Europe, and they were all talking to one another," Fox said. "They were sharing stories about their anxiety, their OCD, their depression, their prescriptions, and natural remedies. There was already a community forming."
Since the club's first meeting, girls from all over the world have reached out to Fox to ask for similar events in their cities. "Now I'm thinking about how can we support, how can we expand," said Fox. "Sad Girls Club is important because there's really nothing there for us between the suicide hotline and talking to a therapist. We're here to bring girls together, to discuss, talk, and create a true community within the mental health world."