‘I just did not want to exist anymore’

Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011

Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011

The issue of mental health for Miss America winners was front and center during the season finale of A&E’s Secrets of Miss America, including discussions about why it’s being affected and what has, or hasn’t, been done about it.

With the 2022 suicide of former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst serving as a catalyst for the conversation, many former Miss Americas shared feelings about the pressure they endured during their year as reigning winner, and also the struggles of transitioning back to everyday life after passing the crown to the next Miss America.

“I think that you’ll find every Miss America has struggled at some point with their mental health, their personal identity during their year,” Miss America 2016 Betty Maxwell said.

And while things like a heavy travel schedule and overall lack of support from the Miss America organization were common talking points among past winners, Maxwell highlighted another common experience for winners: Many expressed feeling as though they had prepared to do a certain kind of job, but there was a complete disconnect from what that job actually was. Instead of discussing topics and dealing with causes they were passionate about, everything they said and did was heavily monitored and regulated by the organization.

“When I won, I was encouraged that the Miss America program was truly the place for celebrating an authentic version of today’s woman. But my experience taught me the exact opposite,” Miss America 2002 Katie Harman said.

One of the main centerpieces of the episode was Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan who, at the age of 17, became the youngest to wear the crown since 1937. She said her downward spiral began shortly after she won when she started noticing all the negative comments on the YouTube videos of her pageant, calling it a “punch in the gut” right as she was coming off a major high. She said every time she spoke in public after that, she would be second-guessing herself.

Scanlan also said that she barely talked to her family during her year as Miss America and said she doesn’t remember sensing any kind of concern from the organization about someone of her young age handling such a heavy workload and travel schedule.

Kirsten Haglund, Miss America 2008, said that she thinks the organization purposely keeps parents in the dark about things.

“I believe that they recognize that if the parents knew everything about what is happening with their daughter during the year, that they would be up in arms about some of the ways she was treated or being exploited,” Haglund said. “They wanted to steer parents away from making too much trouble.”

A couple months after Scanlan’s year was over, she remembers feeling mounting pressure and wasn’t finding contentment or joy in things that she used to, doing things from a place of fear and worrying about what people thought about her. Those feelings eventually boiled over.

“A day that was most severe for me when I hiked to the top of the Scotts Bluff National Monument and just felt so overwhelmed with life and so crushed, so hopeless, that looking out from the top, I just did not want to exist anymore,” Scanlan said. “It was too much to handle, and I figured that it would be better and somehow a better option to just not be here anymore.”

Thankfully that wasn’t the last chapter for Scanlan, who eventually came to understand why she was feeling the way she was and started to heal. She began sharing her story in 2013, which resonated with many past winners who even banded together via an email chain to ask for changes. But according to Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan, there was no formal acknowledgment of their inquiries from the organization.

And now, 10 years later, Miss America 2020 Camille Schrier said that she still hasn’t seen any sort of action.

“Does it take a Miss America taking her life for an organization to directly address it?” she asked.

Brent Adams, the VP of Marketing and Development for Miss America, agrees that more needs to be done.

“I’d love to see us, you know, have some real support structures in place, not just for the people who’ve won the title, but for the candidates in the program as well,” Adams said. “But it’s an ongoing conversation for us on what we could be doing better, because it’s an important issue and I’d love to see some kind of national policies in place. We really don’t have anything.”

Secrets of Miss America airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on A&E.

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