Editor’s note: For support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.
As someone who has battled depression for most of my life, it pained me deeply to read the loss of Cheslie Kryst to suicide this week. It has also pained me to read the attempts of many to answer “How could this happen?” As many try to answer this question, we often miss the mark.
The New York Post calls out abuse from Internet trolls, the Daily Mail cites family dysfunction, and The Philadelphia Inquirer points the finger at the myth of “having it all” for Cheslie’s fatal decision. Some say “getting older” caused her distress; we could also zero in on the pageant experience of comparison (a cup from which I’ve drunk) and societal expectations of women. I am all for taking down these enemies of self-worth and self-love, but there’s no one thing to blame for lives lost to suicide.
Because—however we choose to rationalize a senseless loss like this—to blame this brilliant woman’s death on any one fault is trite and frankly, demeaning. In my view, this tragedy reveals much about how our culture still has such reductionist views of mental health. Playing the blame game after the fact is dangerous because it doesn’t save lives. Circumstances demand we take a more offensive approach toward suicide prevention.
I see myself in Cheslie Kryst: former Miss USA 2019, a J.D., M.B.A graduate, track athlete, lawyer, news correspondent, social justice advocate, beloved daughter, and friend. I’m also a former Miss America titleholder, cross country runner, social entrepreneur, and working mom with a couple degrees under my belt. From an outsider’s perspective, we had it all. Underneath, however, we wanted to throw it all away.
When I read CNN’s report of Cheslie’s fatal jump from a Manhattan high-rise on January 30, 2022, a wrench hit my gut. I silently thanked every person and resource that prevented me from meeting a similar end. Then I thought of all the people in Cheslie’s life; her colleagues, pageant sisters, family, and friends.
Chances are at least one of these people witnessed hints at Cheslie’s mental state. Perhaps they simply didn’t know what to do about it. Or they brushed it off as a temporary problem, a mood that would eventually pass. Maybe they assumed she already had help or that it was an issue to be dealt with at a later time. In fact, Cheslie’s mother recently told Extra that her daughter confided her struggles with high-functioning depression not long before she took her life. Whatever the case, one thing I know is true: Cheslie did not have to die. Yet so many victims fall similarly to suicide every year. I know because I was almost one of them.
Suicide is a major public health crisis
While we may only hear about high-profile suicides, did you know it is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States? The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) reports an average of 130 suicides per day. As of 2019, 13 percent of every 100,000 people in the United States took their own lives. Since the pandemic, the rates have increased. A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) piece notes,“ The majority of suicide deaths occur among working-age individuals, and statistics show that the number of suicides enacted at work have reached record highs.” If you’re reading this, you likely fall within that statistic as either someone who could be at risk or someone who could witness warning signs when someone is at risk—reasons enough to pay closer attention to this phenomenon.
Suicide doesn’t happen for one single reason
Suicidal ideation is complex. There are multiple factors behind it, including and not limited to one’s health conditions, medications, social risk factors, workplace environment, and stressful life events. I won’t pretend to know Cheslie’s personal struggles, but I can speak to my own.
I remember being suicidal from a young age. Supportive friends through grade school and high school prevented me from taking my life more than once. But the pressures of college, working multiple jobs, and strict family expectations took an extra toll on my mental and physical health. I couldn’t handle the immense stress and made attempts to end it on multiple occasions. I tried to keep these struggles a secret, but a roommate noticed an offhand comment I made during a routine run to the grocery store: “I wish I could just jump off a building.”
There is an answer to suicide prevention
I hate that Cheslie Kryst’s passing could have been prevented. From my view, the devastating difference between Cheslie and I was just one single person in my life who noticed my subtle hint at depression and knew how to get me the help I couldn’t recognize I needed.
Soon after that grocery store trip, my roommate gently but firmly confronted me in our apartment. She literally wouldn’t leave me alone for a second until I let her escort me to our college’s behavioral health services department. The professionals took it from there, but if it hadn’t been for her intervention, I might have been dead by now. Instead, I began a therapy journey that I have faithfully maintained ever since, and my life has completely changed for the better because of it.
Was I just lucky?
I happened to say what I did to the right person. But what if I had uttered that tragic thought to someone who didn’t know what to do with me? What if the help was there, but I didn’t know how to access it? A lack of mental health education is one of our society’s greatest failures against our generation. We are mired in social media constantly touting the impossible standards and demands of a have-it-all culture. We look down on signs of weakness and applaud carrying more and more weights on one’s shoulders. It doesn’t matter what the particular weights are in a person’s life—the possibilities are as endless as there are people. What matters is that we all work toward exercising better mental healthcare. I’ve come to view it as a matter of personal hygiene in the same way we make routine visits to the dentist or the gym. The longer we act like checking in on our mental health is optional, the more likely major issues like mental illness and side effects of personal traumas will continue to fly under our radars.
Be the change: how to identify and help someone who is suicidal
While conversations about mental health have become more normalized in schools, hospital, and workplace settings, the most powerful tool for suicide prevention is self-education. HBR recommends looking out for “language and behaviors that might indicate someone is experiencing distress, such as withdrawing oneself, acting anxiously, or experiencing extreme mood swings, or talking about being a burden to others, feeling hopeless, or having no reason to live.”
Unfortunately, even when people know about available mental health services, their feelings of shame, fear, and embarrassment often prevent them from disclosing their pain and seeking help. We can create an environment where others feel comfortable opening up about their struggles by developing authentic friendships and sharing our own stories. Admitting the challenges we are forced to overcome daily is a generous act that invites shared vulnerability.
I must have trusted my roommate enough to reveal such a deep hurt to her. I may have even said what I did flippantly or in jest. My roommate didn’t need to counsel me or solve my problems. She set aside her doubts and assumptions and took what I said seriously. Her intervention literally saved me. Sometimes it is enough to lead the horse to water.
Of course, I don’t know the extent to which the people in Cheslie’s life tried to intervene. According to her mother, Cheslie successfully hid her depression even from the person she considered her best friend. I don’t believe her mom is to blame. I do believe we as a society can do better to equip people to manage mental health crises of this and other kinds with fewer inhibitions. We can all learn from this tragedy to boldly press on in addressing mental health as a culture. We can and must be unified in how we read the signs of people in need, and so those in need can feel more comfortable accepting help without shame. We can thus build a safety net of support so fewer lives are left up to chance.
If there is one thing we should all learn from losing Cheslie, it is simply to be that person for others in your community. At worst, you could be wrong. At best, you could save a life.
For support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential. Contact social media outlets directly if you are concerned about a friend’s social media updates or dial 911 in an emergency.