Podcast: Little Black Girl Don't You Cry
Why would Cheslie Kryst trust the public, given the response to her winning Miss America and the kind of viciousness she experienced? Why would she confide in society, knowing the kind of hateful rhetoric other Black women have received for going public with their mental health struggles?
Cheslie Kryst was proof that excellence could look like a Black woman with six-pack abs and a head of natural curls. She challenged the status quo “when generations of Black women have been taught that being ‘too Black’ would cost them wins in the boardroom and on pageant stages,” she told Allure.
A civil litigation attorney, Emmy Award-nominated entertainment news presenter and former Miss USA 2019, Cheslie racked up qualifications and awards most cannot dream of earning in a lifetime. Her daily life was in no way indicative of high-functioning depression, nor could it have prepared the world for the bone-chilling shock of the news to come Sunday, Jan. 30.
Around 7:15 a.m., Kryst was identified as the woman who had jumped out of her 60-story luxury apartment building on 42nd street in New York City. Her life and untimely death bring forth difficult conversations about the struggles Black girls and women face, and how this community tackles mental health.
High-functioning depression does not differ much in signs or symptoms from major depression, rather it is described as less severe. The key feature is that most people can function almost normally with such depression. Rather than have it manifest outwardly, they internally struggle with low self-esteem, fatigue, hopelessness and worse.
Last year, Krsyt penned an essay for Allure magazine, writing: “When I was crowned Miss USA 2019 at 28 years old, I was the oldest woman in history to win the title …” She continued, “Turning 30 feels like a cold reminder that I’m running out of time to matter in society’s eyes …”
For centuries, Black beauty has been denigrated, Black intelligence discredited and Black culture appropriated. The practice of concealing suffering while presenting as articulate and content is a significant phenomenon among young Black girls and women.
It is no secret that researchers have uncovered worrisome trends when it comes to declining mental health among Black women, specifically increasing suicide rates among young Black girls. Cheslie Kryst is a stunning example that has brought this epidemic to the forefront.
According to a 2019 study published in the Journal of Community Health, actual suicide death rates for Black American girls ages 13 to 19 increased by 182% from 2001 to 2017.
Carmen Reese Foster is a social worker by profession. She is the former Miss Tennessee Valley 2000, a native Tennessean and a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work. She also runs a coalition of Black mental health professionals who provide students of color access and resources.
The significant challenge mental health professionals of color face are the stigmatization of mental health in Black communities. Many carry the mindset that mental illness is akin to failing to live up to a Black ethic of survival of being strong.
“I think that we are opening up a knowledge that we’ve never been able to tap into before. And I think in our lower-income communities of color, there’s more of a movement to really educate about mental health and to destigmatize mental health and to use language early on in education and classrooms about anxiety and depression,” Foster said. “I think that we are slowly opening that up, but I think that we have a long way to go.”
Black women exist without understanding their own trauma, in part due to the detrimental lack of information within the topic of mental illness and emotional distress supplied to communities of color.
Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery is Professor and Chair of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wake Forest University, where Cheslie earned her MBA and law degrees. She further notes that there needs to be space for Black women who have not grown up within more vulnerable spaces to be heard.
“They have to have the space to say ‘No, I’m not OK. Hey, can somebody hear that?’” she said. “People can’t hear that, because with this notion of a strong Black woman, you are supposed to be able to transcend these things. And so, there’s no space for us to say we are in pain and this pain is real. I think suicide is one of those places that fractures Blackness.”
On Jan. 30, Kryst’s last post on Instagram read:
The hope is, in some way, she found that too.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line.