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American Idol's Mandisa Was Suicidal, Gained 200 Lbs. After Friend's Death: 'I'm Still Here' After Feeling 'So Hopeless'

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Ben Trivett

She’s known for her determinedly sunny disposition, but Mandisa recently weathered a dark depression.

After losing her best friend to cancer, the Christian contemporary singer sequestered herself away, gaining 195 lbs. and even considering suicide rather than deal with her grief. But today, Mandisa, 40, is in a happy, healthy place — and with the release of her new album, Out of the Dark, she hopes to help others battling mental illness.

“It only takes one flicker of light to chase out the darkness,” she says.

Mandisa rose to fame in 2006, winning over viewers with her soulful vocals — and for forgiving judge Simon Cowell after he poked fun at her weight. Following her exit from the competition, she found success in Christian music and changed her habits to lose 120 lbs.

 

Ray Mickshaw/WireImage

Then, in 2014, she reached a major career milestone, taking home two Grammys for her album Overcomer. The motivational LP was inspired by her best friend and backup singer Kisha Mitchell’s battle with breast cancer. But later that year, Mitchell died while pregnant.

“When she passed away, it shook the foundations underneath me,” Mandisa says. “I sank into a deep pit of depression.”

Rather than cope with her emotions, “I turned back to my old ways, which is food,” says Mandisa, who gained back the 120 lbs. she had famously lost, plus 75 lbs. more, and became a recluse.

“You’re battling shame, and you don’t want to leave the house,” she says. “I didn’t leave the house, for the most part. When I got up, I went downstairs, sat in the recliner, and I watched television nonstop. The only time I left was when I got tired of pizza delivery and decided to get McDonald’s.”

Mandisa (left) and her late friend Kisha Mitchell, in 2010.
Courtesy Mandisa

Furthermore, Mandisa shut out her friends and her foremost passion: music. At her lowest point, she even considered committing suicide.

“I was so miserable; I felt so hopeless,” says the singer, a devout Christian. “I am a woman of faith, and I believe that heaven is real, and when I do leave here, I’m going to be in heaven with Jesus. One of the things I started hearing during that dark period was: ‘You’re in so much pain. If you take your life, you could be in heaven right now with Jesus.'”

In 2016, on a rare venture out of the house to the movies, loved ones came to her aid and staged what she calls an intervention.

  • For more on Mandisa, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

“When I left the movie theater, I saw my car: It had a bunch of sticky notes all over it. The notes said things like ‘We love you’ and ‘We miss you’ and ‘Come back to us,'” Mandisa recalls. “As I walked closer to my car, I realized a bunch of my friends had been sitting there waiting for me. They insisted that I get counseling, and that is what helped me finally start dealing with my grief. If that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Slowly but surely, Mandisa began to cope with the emotions she’d internalized, which she says “is the healthiest thing I can do, not stuff it down with a box of Krispy Kremes.”

In addition to seeking treatment, she has begun to lose weight again.

“I’m making one healthy choice after another to l lb. at a time,” says Mandisa, who has modified her diet and works out as much as possible.

And through all the hardships, the singer has channeled her pain into her new album Out of the Dark, out Friday.

“When you are walking through this, you think that you’re the only one,” she says of her crippling depression. “But you are never the only person walking through something like that.”

Adds the singer: “I’m still here!”