By: J. Shayla White, Esq.
Hearing about Cheslie Kryst’s death impacted me more than I was willing to publicly say before today. I remember watching her win Miss USA in 2019 while I was still in law school. I smiled watching all the celebrations around her victory. I felt even more connected to her when I learned she was a lawyer. Here she was just like me and she had won Miss USA. She was a black woman, close to my age, and an attorney. A black woman, a millennial, and a lawyer. I remember following her journey for a while before I started studying for the bar and my life progressed to working full-time rather than being a student. I remember watching the video of her celebrating her roommate former Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi. Cheslie always seemed so happy. I resonated with her. So her death kept my attention.
After reading a post from her mother, confirming that her daughter was silently battling depression prior to her death, I realized Cheslie was more like me than I was willing to admit to the world. Her struggle was my struggle. I never felt that as a black woman there was room for me to express myself as far as my mental health is concerned. When I have expressed myself in the past, I was met with resistance. People would share words that they believed would encourage me or they would tell me “this is how the world is.” This was especially true for woes regarding my professional career. So I always smiled and pretended I had it all together. But reading about Cheslie’s suicide and her battle with depression made me think about my personal battle with depression and suicidal thoughts. These battles make me feel like the world only wanted the good parts of me as a black woman.
Growing up in a small town, I always felt like I had to prove I was worthy of praise. Maybe it was the constant pressure to prove I was not just another “girl” from that small town. That pressure caused me to internalize most of the emotions that were negative, because I was never met with compassion when my feelings weren’t smiles and hugs. At different points in my life, I felt these low-like tugging moments where I felt nothing, but I learned to push through. After all, I was a “strong black woman” who was smart so what did I have to complain about.
I cannot imagine the pressure Cheslie felt battling the changes in her life and depression. Good things were happening to her, but she still was battling depression. Since graduating from law school, I passed the bar, and moved to a new city. But, I am still battling depression. I know there are countless other women who share this same story. But instead of talking about it to the world, we either keep it to ourselves or a small trusted group of people.
A few days after she passed, I read Cheslie’s 2021 Allure magazine essay and it broke my heart to read it. As I read it, I could hear and feel her words. I cried for her. I cried for myself. I cried for the women like us. As well written as the words were, they echoed my cries of what I have been dealing with throughout my life. Just as Cheslie had, I battle with depression. In her essay, she wrote about how a beautiful moment like her winning Miss USA was almost instantly tainted because the world was not kind. I wonder if the world knew what Cheslie was battling would it have changed how she was treated. I have little hope that it would have. In her essay, Cheslie details her accomplishments and how even with all of those things, she was still met with harsh comments online about her body and her worth because of how she looked and her beliefs. But Cheslie still smiled in every picture or video I saw of her while she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. I have felt like this before. I wondered if the people around me would say the things they said if they knew my personal battle. If they knew the weight I carried on my shoulders every day.
The weight is one that I have felt often. It is one that my friends and other high-achieving millennial black women battling depression have felt. We are just like Cheslie Kryst. We stand in Cheslie’s shoes. We constantly battle ourselves. We battle depression, but every day we get up. We hide it from the world. We smile each day. And we keep excelling in life until it’s all too much to battle. Some of us battle it together with people who understand, and some of us battle it silently. But my prayer is that the world starts to embrace all parts of black women so we don’t have to battle depression in the dark.
NOTE FROM AUTHOR: I WENT BACK AND FORTH OVER WHETHER TO SHARE THIS. I DIDN’T THINK IT WOULD BE RECEIVED. IT IS A SENSITIVE SUBJECT. BUT IT IS A SUBJECT THAT WE NEED TO DISCUSS MORE TO PREVENT SUICIDE. I SHARE THIS PIECE BECAUSE I HOPE THAT IT HELPS SOMEONE WHO NEEDS IT. I HAVE ONLY SHARED THESE THOUGHTS WITH ONLY A CLOSE GROUP OF FRIENDS BEFORE. THEY GET ME, AND I THANK THEM FOR IT. THEY ENCOURAGED ME TO START WRITING AGAIN AND THIS PIECE IS THE FIRST PIECE I FELT COMPELLED ENOUGH TO WRITE ABOUT AFTER YEARS OF CREATIVE WRITERS BLOCK. THIS ARTICLE WAS INSPIRED BY MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE, THE EXPERIENCES OF MY FRIENDS, AND THE DEATH OF CHESLIE KRYST.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.