Mental health struggles and misogynoir: shining a light on Black women’s mental health
Content Warning: Suicide
I first heard about the death of 2019 Miss USA Cheslie Kryst through a friend who came across the news on TikTok. I was not familiar with her name, but when I Googled a photograph of her I was shocked not only to find out that she committed suicide, but that I had crossed paths with her at a scholarship conference in 2019.
As I watched more news segments about her life and death, I could not resist scrolling down to the comments section, where there was an outpouring of devastation and love as many remembered her as a beautiful, intelligent, and successful woman who was a radiant light in her family and community.
From the brief encounter I had with her years ago, I agree that she was a radiant light. She truly sparkled and shined as she proudly wore her Miss USA crown and eloquently responded to questions and requests for photographs. But as I read more comments about Kryst, I thought to myself: beauty, intelligence, and success do not save anyone from struggling with depression.
News of Kryst’s death came nine days after the death of actress and director Regina King’s son, Ian Alexander Jr., who also committed suicide two days after his 26th birthday. Kryst and Alexander Jr.’s deaths are grim reminders that despite overt success, we never truly know how deeply and for how long someone is struggling with their mental health. For Black individuals, news of these deaths stand in the backdrop of an already emotionally fraught time in America.
We have not only disproportionately struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have also battled against the physical, emotional, and financial consequences that have manifested themselves almost two years after the first US lockdowns. Coupled with the police brutality witnessed on television and phone screens across America as George Floyd and Breoanna Taylor lost their lives, it has not been easy being Black.
While specific information on Kryst and Alexander Jr.’s mental health has not been disclosed to the public, as health correspondent Jamie Ducharme and senior correspondent Janell Ross note in their article, “What We Misunderstand About Suicide Among Black Americans,” there is rarely a single cause or trigger when someone commits suicide. However, culture and environmental influences can lead to an increase in suicide risk. Racism and sexism are triggers that amplify already stressful personal experiences.
Kryst spoke extensively about the microaggressions and sexism she faced throughout her career as a lawyer. As assistant professors of social work and sociology at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Michelle Vance and Jeannette Wade write in their paper, “When you take the idea of being a Black woman and having to live in a sexist society, a racist society, and then add things like having to head a household …that is creating a unique risk.” The stresses of Black women’s personal lives are compounded as they move through environments that explicitly and implicitly discriminate against them based on their race and gender.
Additionally, when Black women are portrayed and expected to be strong and unwavering forces in their family, friend circles, and communities, there is an increased pressure to mask their true emotions.
The phenomenon of masking, where someone appears poised and happy while also emotionally suffering, is extremely common.
As Gayle King a mentee and friend, remarks on a phone interview with Ross on Kryst’s death, she says, “That just throws me for a loop because you know, I think we all know people who are depressed. You can tell they are having a tough day. But that girl was so … She was a sparkle.” As if someone with a sparkle could not also simultaneously be struggling with immense pain. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar expressed this sentiment powerfully in the last stanza of his 1896 poem, “We Wear the Mask,”
“We smile, but O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We Wear the mask!”
Behind a seemingly innocent smile or laugh, we never truly know what is hidden underneath. We do not live in a society that fosters compassion and accepts outward displays of vulnerabilities, especially from Black women.
We become habituated to the continuous pain felt and traumas inflicted, all while donning a smile or generating a laugh, or in Kryst’s case emitting her well-known sparkle. The fear of being perceived as “weak” or “crazy” only encourages Black individuals, specifically Black girls and women, to mask their emotions, when in reality, the opposite is needed.
Rheeda Walker, a licensed clinical psychologist, explains, “People who feel marginalized, who don’t feel like their lives are of value, who don’t feel like they are connected in the ways others are connected, are going to be more at risk of suicide. It seems to me, inherently, that when you’re a member of a racial minority group you will, almost, by default, end up in those groups.”
Tackling issues of depression and suicide, especially in the Black community, does not have an easy solution. Each person’s struggle with mental health is the result of a combination of factors that are unique to them alone.
Both Kryst and Alexander Jr.’s death brought these issues back to mainstream attention, but for those who have lost loved ones to suicide and do not receive media coverage, it makes awareness of this issue all the more urgent.
Black people deserve to have their mental health taken seriously not only after they have passed, but while they are still here with us.