Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Meghan and Harry, the Duchess and Duke of Sussex, launched what felt like thousands of “takes” and “key takeaways.” And to be fair, there is a lot to discuss here. But while much of the analysis revolves around the couple’s damning revelations about the royal family — with its archaic, racist and colonial underpinnings — for me the most radical and groundbreaking part of the interview was the frankness with which the couple discussed their struggles with mental health.
For me the most radical and groundbreaking part of the interview was the frankness with which the couple discussed their struggles with mental health.
“I was really ashamed to say it at the time and ashamed to have to admit it to Harry, especially, because I know how much loss he’s suffered,” Meghan told Winfrey as she detailed depression that at one point got so bad that she contemplated hurting herself. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Efforts to seek help for her depression and its concomitant suicidal ideation were undermined by those worried about the monarchy’s reputation, the couple said. It was during this time that Prince Harry’s mental health began to suffer, too.
The significance of this admission cannot be overstated. The stigma around mental health is sustained and pernicious, making such unvarnished and raw conversations in the public discourse important to begin with. But the need to challenge this stigma could not be more exigent in a global mental health crisis brought on by Covid-19. In the U.S. alone, the number of adults suffering from anxiety and depression increased from 1 in 10 before the pandemic to 4 in 10 after it began, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Add to this the compounding issues of shame and embarrassment that continue to be associated with mental health.
This issue of shame is a recurring theme for Meghan and Harry. Later in the interview, when Winfrey asked Prince Harry why he was initially hesitant to seek help from his family when Meghan’s mental health began to suffer, he said, “I guess I was ashamed of admitting it to them.”
Almost 60 percent of adults with mental health illness do not seek help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The significance of a Black woman’s speaking so openly about her struggle is not to be overstated, either — Black and Hispanic Americans are significantly less likely to seek help than white Americans, according to the alliance. A potential loss of social status or negative professional implications often tend to silence those who need help, the American Psychiatric Association says. And these fears have been substantiated by countless studies of social stigma surrounding mental health. In fact, an editorial in The Lancet noted that people “often describe the consequences of mental health stigma as worse than those of the condition itself.”
I can attest to this as someone who has battled depression and anxiety for much of my life. I am outwardly social, and it was a shock to many when I slowly began to be more open about my struggles. I invested considerable energy in protecting and curating my persona precisely because I was afraid of what people might think if they knew the truth about my depression. I feared being judged, of being perceived as weak and of becoming somehow socially less desirable, among a host of other concerns. But more recently, I’ve become a lot more deliberate about discussing my struggles more openly. It is uncomfortable and awkward, and it forces me out of my comfort zone, but I also hope it helps — in whatever small way — to fight the stigmas that kept me quiet for so long.
While I do not suggest for a moment that Meghan’s experiences overlap with mine, there was something profound, cathartic and heartbreaking about hearing another woman of color so openly discuss reaching her psychological breaking point. Hopefully, she is providing a new model for people in similar emotional crises. I could not articulate my own feelings of crisis precisely because I had no road map for doing so.
“That’s, I think, so important for people to remember, is you have no idea what’s going on for someone behind closed doors,” Meghan said, speaking both to her own experience and to the experiences of the millions of people who feel incapable of admitting their mental health struggles. “You have no idea … even the people that smile the biggest smiles and shine the brightest lights.”
Despite her palpable pain, Meghan ultimately struck a tone of hope, too. She offered an alternative to prevailing narratives about mental health: “I’m still standing — and my hope for people in the takeaway from this is to know that there’s another side, to know that life is worth living.”
Meghan’s ability to own and reclaim her experience so publicly was the most subversive and radical part of this interview. Privilege does not protect you from disempowerment in contexts such as these. With any luck, this will signal a shift in public perception on mental health (and its accompanying stigma). It could not come at a better time.