How the death of Cheslie Kryst exemplifies the unfairness of the 'strong Black woman' stereotype
When news of Cheslie Kryst's death became public, my heart ached for her and her loved ones. The 30-year-old former Miss USA and Extra correspondent died by suicide on Sunday. And while I didn’t know Kryst, I know many Black women like her who have felt similar pain.
I wasn't alone. It felt familiar to Maia Wise, a licensed clinical social worker in Washington, D.C., too.
“It is a familiar feeling because I know that she was experiencing pain and masking it really well,” Wise tells Yahoo Life.
This week, in fact, Kryst's mother said that her daughter privately lived with "high-functioning depression." On Instagram, she shared, "Today, what our family and friends privately knew was the cause of death of my sweet baby girl, Cheslie, was officially confirmed. While it may be hard to believe, it’s true. Cheslie led both a public and a private life. In her private life, she was dealing with high-functioning depression which she hid from everyone — including me, her closest confidant — until very shortly before her death."
For Black women, individual distress often speaks to collective wounds. Many of us are socialized to be adherents of the "strong Black woman" trope — a belief "that Black women are naturally strong, resilient, self-contained, and self-sacrificing," according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Black Psychology — and push through any sorrow to avoid being seen as weak. (Think, for example, of the Aibileen Clark character in The Help, a role Viola Davis has expressed regret over portraying in the 2011 film, or Olivia Pope of Scandal.)
As a result, Black women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety and less likely to receive help. Further, while suicide rates for Black women are significantly lower than for Black men, Black high-school-age females were 60 percent more likely to attempt suicide (in 2019) than white females of the same age.
It’s an exhausting yet tangible sentiment that defines much of our experience.
“We're taught to mask and hide this pain,” says Wise. “Over time, the ability to mask and hide that pain has been viewed as a sign of strong character, and that's not right. It's completely wrong.”
She continues, “We're taught to exist in a state of denial, and that lays the groundwork for psychological stress. And as Black women, we learn to deny our inner needs while putting on this public appearance. We can often appear to be functioning while on jobs but be utterly dysfunctional in private.”
Much of the news coverage and collective processing of Kyrst’s death has referred to her being “high-functioning,” including the statement from her mother, though she dealt with depression.
But “high-functioning” isn’t a clinical diagnosis. Instead, it describes how someone is navigating their disorder — such as continuing to be employed, maintaining interpersonal relationships and generally keeping up the appearance that everything is fine. People tend to be more aware of what Katherine Marshall Woods, a licensed clinical psychologist at George Washington University, calls the “low-functioning” period of clinical depression, which has more visible attributes including lack of appetite, low energy, not being able to carry out daily tasks or trouble grooming.
“It’s much more visible, which I think is why people feel like they didn't necessarily see this coming for [Kryst], because how she was navigating through those symptoms were in a high-functioning way,” Woods tells Yahoo Life.
Maintaining appearances while wading through a murky mental state is something embedded in history for Black communities, within which much has been said about the presence of mental health stigma. But it is, in fact, present in most communities — and why it exists among Black folks is unique and multifaceted.
Both Woods and Wise note that Black people have faced countless atrocities — enslavement, Jim Crow, a plethora of medical traumas and "intergenerational trauma," or trauma that is passed down — that have required strength and resilience without the aid of mental health care. Because of this, there’s less community understanding about what constitutes mental health. (Wise pointed to clients who witnessed harrowing events but who did not describe those moments as "traumatic.")
Such levels of resilience and strength are seen as generally positive attributes, particularly against the type of societal stress Black women face, despite being unrealistic and allowing no room for human emotions. The psychological cost of being strong, or how hardships affect someone’s ability to understand themselves, goes unaccounted. And that idea of “strength” even trickles down into our interpersonal relationships — a notion many are pushing against.
So many of us are hurting. So many. I’m so heartbroken over the sheer number of us who don’t have enough. And while “you matter” or “check on your friends” feels like something to say right now, I just can’t. Because I think we’re way passed that point. People need a lot more.
— KAYA NOVA (@thekayanova) January 31, 2022
“Check on your strong friend” sounds cool, but as the strong friend that deals with a lot of heavy shit, sometimes you have to do more than check-in. Hold space for, pray for, gas up, defend, listen to, send a coffee or a card to, love on, buy from, promote your strong friends.
— PJ (@lovejonesIV) January 31, 2022
Before you "check on your strong friend" make sure you know how to engage with someone in crisis. I've actually lost what I thought were close friendships because I tried to open up while in crisis and they... had no idea what to do so they ghosted.
— Mary Annaïse Heglar (@MaryHeglar) January 31, 2022
“How frequently does a person have to be strong in order for them to meet the qualifications to check up on?” says Woods. “It's also not enough because, again, what we're seeing is that if a person is behaving this way and they … feel like they have to be strong, they’re not necessarily going to be the friend who is going to say, ‘Yes, and I need help.’”
And people should consider how they respond when the “strong friend” does share that they’re having a hard time.
“Do you provide them with a terse response?” says Woods. “Do you strategize with them? Do you process with them how they're feeling? Do you give them resources so then they can talk to other people? How is it that you're going to show up for them?”
The advice Woods gives for checking up on a friend is to be clear that you’re checking up on them because you see that they constantly interact with the world as someone strong — and you're wondering if there are times when they need you to be there so they can be vulnerable. Then acknowledge their feelings, but don’t minimize them. Ask how are they comfortable receiving support, if it’s OK to check in on them regularly, how often they’d appreciate it or if they’d like you to point them to helpful resources.
"As Black women, we have to break away from this messaging that we've been receiving since childhood," says Wise. "And it starts with acknowledging yourself, creating that relationship with yourself and building that self-awareness."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.