TW: This article may contain mentions of suicide and self-harm.
In early 2022, the world felt like it slowed down a bit as people digested the shocking news of beauty pageant queen Cheslie Kryst, who died by suicide. When you scroll through her Instagram, the photos she had posted only weeks before her death were images of her smiling, looking happy, and being carefree. You can see photos of her working, being in front of the camera, and doing what I imagine was her norm. These pictures and videos, however, began to spark a conversation among Black women who knew too well that feeling like you're carrying the world on your shoulders and forcing yourself to smile through it all to hide the pain.
For many of these Black women, like Cheslie, it’s hard to see the hurt because the smiles are so radiant. It’s hard to sense the pain when they’re so energetic and exuberant, and for many Black women who struggle with high-functioning depression and anxiety, it's hard to tell that this feeling and heaviness is actually the result of a deeper issue connected to their mental health, and it’s even harder for people on the outside to see what’s going on with them within.
The concept of "high-functioning anxiety and depression" is not commonly known because it is not a classified diagnosis in the DSM-5. However, it is a term that was developed to describe people who struggle with these mental health disorders but are able to function well in different aspects of their lives—creating an illusion that they are coping with their mental health—when, in reality, they are just managing as they go but deeply struggling day-to-day and remaining productive allows them to avoid their pain.
Research indicates that after the death of George Floyd, anxiety and depression among African Americans skyrocketed from 36 percent to 46 percent which equates to more than 1.4 million people who reported a debilitating difference in their mental health to the Census Bureau.
Black people have to carry the burden of racial stress, pandemic stress, and day-to-day stress, and often, must do so while trying to operate and function at their best ability in order to move through the world without falling apart. The issue is, that many Black people truly are falling apart, and in particular, Black women are "1.8 times more likely than Black men to report sadness most or all the time and are 2.4 times more likely than Black men to report feeling hopeless more or all the time.”
The feeling of sadness and hopelessness is a direct symptom of dealing with major depression and anxiety, and in our society, the world does not stop when there is racial injustice, white supremacist attacks, pandemics, and global trauma. Instead, we are required to keep going, and Black women are required to push through despite it all and show up in all aspects of their lives including as mothers, caretakers, and within leadership in the workplace, a space that can almost often be a breeding ground for microaggressions and subtle acts of racism that impact Black women daily.
To further understand the impact anxiety and depression have on Black women’s health, let’s unpack these two terms.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health disorder where a person experiences consistent worry, fear, and feelings of anxiousness in their everyday lives, and it is not tied to a particular reason. People who have high-functioning anxiety may experience this kind of anxiety, but what makes them different is that people with GAD experience symptoms that are debilitating to the point where it impacts their ability to function, meet tasks, and perform certain obligations.
High-functioning depression is clinically known as persistent depressive disorder. This is when someone experiences symptoms of depression such as feelings of sadness and hopelessness, changes in mood and appetite, low energy, sleep disturbances, and other issues in a less severe manner that still allows them to function and manage their obligations and responsibilities.
People with high-functioning anxiety and depression may use their feelings of worry, anxiousness, and sadness as a catalyst for productivity and managing success. Black women may carry this trait by being high achievers, operating in roles of leadership, are helpful, and often seen as the “strong friend,” they often appear happy and seem to have their life in order and are often looked up to and revered by others because of how great their lives seem to be unfolding.
Some may look at these characteristics and think this seems healthy and unproblematic, but the issue here is that this is what we see on the surface. On the inside, the Black women we know who are experiencing issues may also be silently dealing with:
- Low self-esteem and low self-worth, and channel this through overachieving
- People-pleasing and living in constant fear of rejection, driving people away, being unavailable to others, and not being seen as good enough
- Chronic feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of relief from self-debilitating thoughts
- Poor boundaries and an inability to say no out of fear of other people’s reactions or the fear of missing out on something good
- Constant overthinking and self-sabotaging thoughts
- Poor relationships and no social life from an inability to create genuine connections that are not tied to achievements or what they can do for someone
- Imposter syndrome or constant comparing to others that causes them to suffer
- Problems with alcohol and drug abuse
- Thoughts of suicide ideation and/or self-harm
All the success, accolades, and achievements, can be distracting to those on the outside because many of us know that in order to obtain these things, hard work and dedication are requirements and we are used to the narrative around those who suffer from mental health issues looking a particular way. They appear sad, dejected, lonely, isolated, and unable to do basic things for their own personal and mental hygiene when in reality, that is not how everyone copes with their mental health.
Black women are aware that the world does not stop for their pain, so when we are wounded and need healing, we have taught ourselves that strength is to be found in propelling forward instead of seeking help, learning to rest, saying "no," and being at peace with our existence without tying it to the things we can achieve or how well we can perform in the midst of chaos.
Getting help can be scary when it’s not something you’ve ever done before, but wellness means learning to prioritize the things that enhance your well-being, increase your lifespan and benefit your mental health. Black women must be reminded that they do not have to earn their rest, nor do they have to wait until they're struggling before rewarding themselves with life pleasures and do what they need to care for themselves.
Take control of your mental health. Here are everyday tools that you can use to manage high-functioning depression and anxiety:
- Better boundaries with yourself: Take inventory of the things you say yes to and then get to the root of your, ‘why.’ Do you say 'yes' in order to please people? Is it because you think you’ll be missing out? Because you fear people’s reactions if you say 'no'? This is a sign that you have poor boundaries and this is actually exasperating your mental health issues rather than healing them. Make a list of five things you want to commit to doing for yourself daily, and define what boundaries you need to put in place to ensure you commit to doing what you need for yourself.
- Practice mindfulness/meditation: When people are severely anxious, they are trapped in a spiral of their thoughts and it can be hard to get out of their heads. Mindfulness is a form of meditation that teaches us to be present at the moment and to be grounded in reality, rather than in our heads tangled up in our thoughts that most of the time are not real and are things we made up in our minds as a form of catastrophic thinking that stems from anxiety. Practicing mindfulness can look like engaging in tasks and being in tune with your senses. Consider the work of cooking. During this task, you may focus on what you feel as you use your hands, what you smell as you use ingredients, and focus on what’s right in front of you. Think of a practice that makes you feel grounded and commit to practicing mindfulness daily.
- Journaling: Sometimes you will need to get out of your head. Studies have shown that journaling is a beneficial tool for managing mental health issues. During this practice, you can follow two themes. 1: Free-form journaling is when you write out your thoughts and express yourself through your writing. 2: Theme-based journaling is when you focus on a particular theme such as gratitude journaling, intention setting journaling, affirmation journaling, etc. Consider which options are most appropriate for you and commit to this practice a few times a week or daily.
There are going to be times when our mental health is suffering to the point where we need additional care and assistance outside of what we’ve cultivated in our self-care toolbox, and seeing a mental health professional may be the best option for your well-being.
Consider finding a therapist by visiting the following directories:
When finding a therapist, make a list of at least five questions that you want to ask during your consultation call to give you a better understanding of how therapy with this particular practitioner works. The top two questions I recommend that you include in that list are:
- Can you tell me about your treatment approach for people who struggle with depression or anxiety?
- Can you give me insight into your therapeutic process and what I should expect as we work together?
Remember that getting help is not a weakness, it is a sign of strength because a wise person understands that we all have limits and that we cannot do it all.
Community care means learning to be vulnerable and giving ourselves permission to lean on those who offered to be supportive structures for us to hold ourselves up on.
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Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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Queen Latifah On Her Journey To Self-Acceptance: 'I've Been Trying To Maintain My Freedom To Be Me'
Actress and rapper Dana "Queen Latifah" Owens is defying societal standards by refusing to be confined in a box regarding her personal and professional life.
Owens, who has been a part of the entertainment industry for over three decades, is widely recognized for her empowering songs and the variety of acting roles she has obtained throughout her career, among other things. The list includes Living Single, Set It Off, Chicago --with which she earned an Oscar nomination-- Just Wright, Girls Trip, and most recently, The Equalizer series on CBS.
Owens is also very tight-lipped about her personal life. However, in 2021, The Last Holiday actress showed appreciation to Eboni Nichols, who is reportedly her partner, and their son Rebel after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award.Since then, Owens has revealed why she doesn't want to be defined as anything but herself and how she maintains her sense of freedom. In a resurfaced video from theGrio Awards, Owens opened up about those topics when she accepted the Television Icon Award for her past contributions
In a clip uploaded on theGrio's Instagram account last week, Owens explained that she often had to fight to be herself because "the world" kept trying to put her in a box based on what society thought a woman should be.
"My whole life, I feel like I've been trying to maintain my freedom to be me. And the world is trying to put these things on me to stop me from being who I am," she said.
Further into the speech, Owens explained that although many would have their own opinion about her from what the media spews out, she would continue to be herself by wearing "beautiful gowns and dresses," playing in the dirt, participating in basketball games with men and loving who she loves because that's what makes her happy.
The Beauty Shop star also added that despite her celebrity status, she would continue to show respect for others because that's who she is as a person and how she was raised.
"So I wear these beautiful gowns and dresses because I want to because that's part of me. I play in the dirt. I play basketball with the boys because that's me,” she stated. "I love who I love because that's me. I love all of you who have supported me. I give you your respect. I don't have to be above you because that's me. I know me."
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