Black women, and queens, wear more than just a crown

Cheslie Kryst‘s suicide brings mental health issues to focus.

She was an attorney with a passion for helping wrongfully convicted prisoners, a fashion blogger for women’s workwear fashion, and a correspondent for the entertainment news program, “Extra.”

On top of all that, she was a former Miss USA.

But despite all of her outward appearance of success and happiness, Cheslie Kryst suffered from the debilitating mental illness, depression, that led her to take her life in January. It was a battle she thought she had won. In 2019, she shared in a Facebook video how she managed her battles.

“I do a lot to make sure I maintain my mental health,” Kryst said in the video. “One of the most important things I do is talk to my counselor.”

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In 2019, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst showcased her costume. ELISSA BENZIE/AJC FILE

Credit: Elissa Benzie

In 2019, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst showcased her costume. ELISSA BENZIE/AJC FILE

Credit: Elissa Benzie

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In 2019, Miss USA Cheslie Kryst showcased her costume. ELISSA BENZIE/AJC FILE

Credit: Elissa Benzie

Credit: Elissa Benzie

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Her win in 2019, in Atlanta, was notable as it marked the first time, Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss America were all Black women. Her win was special in another way, Kryst was known as a trailblazer for representing her own crown; competing while wearing her natural hair while at the time when there were few doing it.

“Although more women are competing with natural hair nowadays, there still aren’t many. So, I was a little bit worried and anxious about doing it, but I thought, ‘I want to do it as the most real and authentic me,’ and that’s really what my hair represents,” Kryst said in a Refinery 29 magazine interview. Her death shed light on the many battles that some black women face — many of them suffer in silence.

Mental health is not often a conversation starter in the Black community. According to researchers, Black women are amongst the most undertreated groups for depression in the United States.

Some of that stems from trauma and in the latest book by Northwestern Medicine clinical psychologist Dr. Inger Burnett-Zeigler, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women,” an estimated eight out of 10 Black women have experienced some form of trauma.

Nearly one in five U.S. adults, or 53 million Americans in 2020, live with a mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which classifies Any Mental Illness (AMI) as the presence of a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder ranging in impact from no impairment to severe impairment.

The prevalence of AMI was higher among females (25.8%) than males (15.8%) and highest among young adults ages 18-25 (30.6%). The prevalence of AMI was highest among the adults reporting two or more races (35.8%).

According to the report, only 37.1% of Black people received any kind of mental health services, compared to 52% for whites.

For some women, who have won crowns like Kryst, those numbers reveal reality.

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February 5, 2022 Atlanta - Boshicu Page (left), US American Miss Georgia 2022, and Taylor Martin, USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

February 5, 2022 Atlanta - Boshicu Page (left), US American Miss Georgia 2022, and Taylor Martin, USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, in Piedmont Park in Atlanta.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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February 5, 2022 Atlanta - Boshicu Page (left), US American Miss Georgia 2022, and Taylor Martin, USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, in Piedmont Park in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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”I was going through a lot of depression, and there were days I couldn’t get out of bed,” Taylor Martin, 22, the reigning USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, said. Just as it was for many, 2020 was a challenging year for Martin. Her depression and anxiety were at their worst, making it difficult for her to prep for competing in her first national pageant.

“It affected my overall confidence when I did get to the pageant,” Martin said. “I was so worried about what everybody else was doing and feeling like I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I think that my depression and anxiety had a lot to do with that.”

Going to therapy and being provided with depression medication allowed her to focus on life and motivation for her passion.

“I competed for a state title within [USA National Miss] again at the beginning of January, and I won,” Martin said. " From that point on…that gave me a little more of a push, more of a growth mindset like a hustle.”

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Taylor Martin, USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, .(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Taylor Martin, USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, .(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Taylor Martin, USA National Miss Southern Empire 2021, .(Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

A title such as queen comes with new responsibilities for these individuals with events to attend, speeches to give, and becoming a role model for those after you. A correspondence of adding these responsibilities on the individual often leaves them with no option. As a queen, you don’t have the luxury to hide and not be present.

“You always have to be on,” said Boshicu Page, the U.S. American Miss Georgia 2022. “Even if you are not feeling the best mentally, you still have to go and give your all.”

Page, 24, who competed in her first pageant in 2020, was diagnosed with hyperfunctioning anxiety and minor depression at age 19. During her run in the pageant circuit, her ongoing battle with mental health was a daunting cloud that she steadily worked to shine through. Last year, however, her mental health got to the point where she canceled appearances as the reigning queen, Page said.

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Boshicu Page, US American Miss Georgia 2022.. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

 Boshicu Page, US American Miss Georgia 2022.. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Boshicu Page, US American Miss Georgia 2022.. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“It just got so bad. I was at my lowest point, and it was like every day I was just thinking about driving my car into a wall,” Page said.

The only thing that helped her overcome the feeling of being “lost” was the support of her fellow sister queens in the pageant that June.

Page and Martin have used counseling, medication, and peer group support to help find peace within their storms. As queens, they are also role models for facing their mental health challenges and becoming advocates in their communities. Showing up each day might help someone suffering to know that they are not alone.

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During the month of February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will publish a daily feature highlighting African American contributions to our state and nation. Go to www.ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on people, places, organizations, and artists like Vanessa Williams that have changed the world and to see videos and listen to Spotify playlists on featured African American pioneers. (Edits by Tyson Horne and Ryon Horne / tyson.horne@ajc.com rhorne@ajc.com)

“I am here to show people that you don’t have to dim your light for anyone,” Page said.

Martin takes the approach of her being open with her daily struggles, it can inspire someone to keep moving forward.

“I encourage you to be authentic about being who you are and what you are going through because you never know who you will inspire,” Martin said.

Black History Month 2022 from AJC

The AJC’s Black History Month series in February focused on the role of health and wellness in the Black community. In addition to the traditional stories that we do on African American pioneers, these pieces appeared in our Living and A sections every day during the month. You can also go to ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr/ for more subscriber exclusives on the African American people, places and organizations that have changed the world.

Health and wellness series

Unapologetically ATL – For coverage of Black Atlanta culture

AJC Black History Month full coverage