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NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 28: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst visits BuzzFeed’s ‘AM To DM’ on February 28, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)
  • Former Miss USA, TV personality, and civil lawyer Cheslie Kryst recently died by suicide in New York City.
  • Suicide rates among Black people are on the rise.
  • Suicide prevention and awareness alongside access to healthcare within marginalized communities are integral to lowering suicide rates.

The recent media coverage of former Miss USA, lawyer, and TV correspondent Cheslie Kryst’s suicide, alongside other well-known faces in the media, have sparked conversations in homes across the nation about suicide and mental health.

Not only has this tragedy brought awareness to mental health, but it has also served as a needed reminder of another, larger issue: The climbing rates of suicide among Black people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide rates increased for Black people by 2.5% between 2018 and 2019. In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black people or African Americans between 15 and 24 years old.

These numbers are even higher among Black youth. A 2021 study found that Black teens between the ages of 15 and 17 years old experienced a 4.9% increase in suicide from 2003 to 2017.

Cheslie Kryst was best known for winning Miss USA in 2019 and then working for “Extra” as an entertainment correspondent.

Kryst attended South Carolina college, then Wake Forest University in North Carolina to receive her MBA and JD degrees.

She began pageantry in high school and took several years off before competing and winning Miss North Carolina and Miss USA.

The late-TV personality was also a civil lawyer before her pageantry wins, representing pro-bono people with lower incomes or who had low-level drug offenses.

Kryst was outspoken about the causes that mattered to her, including anti-racism, anti-discrimination for women, and mental health.

Kryst died by suicide on Jan. 30 in New York City. That same day, she posted a picture of herself on Instagram with the caption reading, “May this day bring you rest and peace.”

Kryst reportedly left a note stating she was leaving everything to her mother but left no motive. She was 30 years old.

Kryst’s death led to a media uproar from fans on social media to reporters to mental health professionals.

This situation mirrors the trends recurrently seen in media in which a celebrity, particularly one who was seen as uplifting or inspirational, dies by suicide, subsequently leading to a temporary increase in conversation around mental health awareness.

Recently, back-to-back coverage of suicides from young Black celebrities has been shown. Within a month, musician Ian Alexander Jr. — actress Regina King’s son — and Hyattsville, Maryland Mayor Kevin Ward died by apparent suicide.

The timeline of these deaths has startled the public, but they’re a reflection of the rise in rates of suicide, particularly among Black people.

In 2020, rates of suicide death had decreased — except among Black people.

A new study from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that while the overall rate of suicides in the United States decreased by 3% in 2020, the rates for People of Color and young people increased.

Some research suggests that this rise could be attributed to the pandemic. Black communities were the hardest hit during the pandemic, with record unemployment rates and higher SARS-CoV-2 infections and deaths. The pandemic also came as the country faced racial injustice and political chaos.

A 2020 study found that during lockdowns, suicide rates decreased for white Maryland residents but increased for Black residents. During reopening, rates didn’t differ historically for Black residents but decreased among white residents.

However, because of disproportionate rates before the pandemic alongside ongoing oppression for People of Color, some experts don’t hold COVID-19 as the primary issue, but rather the ongoing systemic issues and the lack of access to mental health services.

Renetta Weaver, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health advocate, spoke candidly about her professional experience in addition to her lived experience as a Black woman with high functioning depression. She stressed how stigma permeates Black people, particularly concerning societal expectations of Black women.

“Black women were used to wearing a mask, long before COVID came,” she said. “Wearing it has been built into us, and we don’t feel like we have time for a breakdown or a sabbatical like other people.”

Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH, community psychologist, public health scientist, and women’s health scholar, also speaks to the pre-COVID conditions that exist in the United States that might contribute to the disproportionate suicide rates — such as the steadily increasing rates of anxiety and depression among Black women in addition to societal expectation and systemic oppression.

“As a result, if not balanced, this could result in unchecked behavior that may lead to suicidal ideation,” Barlow said. “There’s still so much more we’re learning about suicide; however, we do know there’s an increase in national and local threats to Black life (e.g., domestic terrorists, white nationalism, police violence), which might also be a contributing factor.”

Because of Kryst’s bright personality and professional success, her death shocked many. The New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner recently confirmed that the former Miss USA did indeed die by suicide.

“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,” April Simpkins, Kryst’s mother, shared with “Extra.”

Having candid discussions about the importance of prioritizing mental health and all the factors that could impact it could help lower the rates of suicide and end the mental health stigma.

“Being real about your mental health often means being real about past and current trauma…,” Barlow said. For a Black woman, she says this might mean having “silent conversations with herself after she’s achieved all the goals she’s been told to make — education, career, and lifestyle.”

But while these conversations are beneficial, having access to reliable mental health care is crucial to improving physical and mental health in Black communities.

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), while Black people are just as likely to develop a mental health condition as white people, they are less likely to receive treatment. Only about 37% of Black adults in the United States with a mental health condition received treatment in 2020 compared to 46% of the adult population as a whole.

Efforts to improve this lack of access for Black people have to be addressed to change this trend. Addressing systemic racism, offering culturally competent mental health resources, and increasing mental health education to Black people are good starts to addressing this need.

This could start with educating yourself about suicidal ideation and what that looks like.

If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, understanding when these thoughts happen and why could help you learn to manage them. A good place to start could be keeping a journal to track distressing thoughts and feelings.

Consider creating a safety or mental crisis plan. This can include self-care strategies and interventions alongside emergency contact numbers and references.

Prevention could also start with improving access to healthcare, including mental health, for all people and addressing the stigma surrounding mental health.

Open and honest discussions about the truth of suicidal ideation and its prevalence in Black communities are crucial, as many individuals keep their experience to themselves, fearing judgment.

“We’re all just carrying this weight, and we don’t even realize until it becomes so heavy that we can’t crawl from underneath it,” Weaver said. “Crying looks like weakness or asking for help looks like weakness, but that’s really the strongest we can be.”

If you need help immediately

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available right now. You can:

If you’re outside the U.S., you can reach out to Befrienders Worldwide.

Was this helpful?

Suicide rates are on the rise, especially among Black people. But there are things we can all do to help. We can:

  • create safe environments to keep the conversations going
  • strengthen access to healthcare and mental health care in all communities
  • offer community programs and services, especially in marginalized communities
  • educate ourselves about suicidal ideation, signs to look out for, and how to respond

If you’re living with depression, consider reaching out to a mental health professional to manage your symptoms and learn to cope with day-to-day life.

For culturally competent resources, including free virtual support groups and therapist directories, you can check out these organizations: