Why our response to Meghan Markle’s mental health revelations matters
Following the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s candid interview with Oprah Winfrey, both traditional and social media have had a lot to say regarding Meghan opening up about suicidal thoughts and her personal mental state. In this article, mental health campaigner Natasha Devon explores why the response to this has been so problematic, and the wider implications this has on all of us...
One in six of us in Britain have now watched the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s interview with Oprah Winfrey on ITV, which first aired in the UK on Monday night. During the programme, Meghan described feeling suicidal while pregnant with her son Archie, and how she had not been allowed to seek the help she needed.
“I really don’t believe she is this weak person.”
“I don’t believe she had nowhere to turn.”
“When you are suicidal you don’t tell the world, normally.”
“Oh please, it’s just more victimhood.”
This is just a small selection of the responses I received in the aftermath, while discussing Meghan’s mental health struggles on Twitter. They reveal a very worrying lack of understanding and empathy, not just for the Duchess, but for all of us affected by mental health issues. From my perspective as a mental health campaigner, it makes me wonder how much progress we’ve really made during the past decade or so, despite huge amounts of resources being poured into various awareness raising campaigns, and the magnificent work of charities like Time to Change in tackling stigma?
"Meghan’s story can’t be viewed in isolation. In fact, it is emblematic of a number of key issues"
It’s important to understand the context here. Meghan’s story can’t be viewed in isolation. In fact, it is emblematic of a number of key issues. First of all, Meghan is a woman. My campaign group, The Mental Health Media Charter, found when we polled our supporters that women were much more likely to be accused of exaggerating mental health concerns. Phrases such as ‘attention-seeking’ and ‘Drama Queen’ had commonly been used to dismiss and diminish the women and non-binary people who submitted their mental health stories to us.
This response has its roots in an ancient stereotype which, nonetheless, has very real ramifications. Historically, women were proclaimed ‘hysterical’ when enduring conditions such as anxiety and depression. Furthermore, numerous studies have found that women are less likely to have any kind of pain, whether physical or psychological, taken seriously by medical professionals. Millions of women have experienced being told their very real distress or discomfort is imagined, or not as bad as their words would suggest. To hear Meghan speak candidly about being refused help for suicidal thoughts will certainly have been a trigger for those women.
Furthermore, Meghan is biracial. This is significant on two counts. First of all, the phenomenon of women not being given appropriate treatment for pain is more pronounced if they are black. BAME people are also statistically more likely to experience serious mental health issues but less likely to see a positive outcome from treatment, as reported by the Mental Health Foundation. This is due to a multitude of complex factors, but undoubtedly many Black and Brown people will be able to relate to Meghan’s experiences of not being able to access appropriate support.
"Unsurprisingly, studies show being discriminated against on the basis of skin colour or ethnicity has a negative impact on mental health"
Racism also plays a role in mental ill-health. Unsurprisingly, studies show being discriminated against on the basis of skin colour or ethnicity has a negative impact on mental health. While Meghan did not specifically attribute the clear bias against her in the British tabloid press to her race, commentators of colour have been unequivocal in this regard. Yet, in other quarters, there have been calls for these commentators to ‘prove’ their claims (despite their expertise through lived experience), and even suggestions that Meghan was not ‘seen’ as a mixed race woman and therefore could not be a victim of racism.
Which brings me on to the final reason Meghan’s experience is so important and symbolic: Meghan has light skin and straight hair. For these reasons, her racial heritage is perhaps not completely obvious to some. That does not, however, mean that she cannot, or indeed has not, experienced racism. As far as I can tell, Meghan was getting it from both sides – a toxic combination of racism and a determination to deny the existence of that racism. In this regard, she was a victim of gaslighting, which has also been shown to have a detrimental impact on mental health.
So that’s why many people, and especially those like me (a woman affected by mental health issues of mixed heritage but who can ‘pass’ for white) see themselves reflected in Meghan. As far as I can tell, her critic’s insistence on questioning the reliability of her testimony in relation to her suicidal thoughts comes from two persistent myths: 1. That women are attention-seekers (addressed above); and 2. That since Meghan is rich and famous, she should either be immune to mental health concerns (‘What does she have to complain about?’), or should have had the resources to access expedient support.
Every time a high-profile, perceived-wealthy person dies as a result of mental health issues – Caroline Flack, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams – the response is the same: ‘But they had it all!’ And this reaction, while understandable, is predicated on a fundamental misinterpretation of what the data tells us.
It is true that there is a direct link between mental ill-health and poverty. However, it does not follow that affluence necessarily makes you happy. The relationship between mental health and financial wealth is complex, and is explored in the 2011 documentary film Happy. The scientific consensus is that while having enough money to comfortably cover a basic standard of living (home, bills, car, support any dependants, one holiday a year) has a measurable impact on happiness, wealth over and above this does not. In the US, this manifests as a happiness/wealth‘cut-off-point’ of about $50,000 per year.
Furthermore, celebrities, particularly those who are under intense tabloid scrutiny, are a vulnerable group in their own right when it comes to mental health. As Russell Brand says in this ‘Trews Recovery’ Youtube video , connection is essential to wellbeing and the very famous, since being so far removed from the rest of society, they are more likely to feel isolated. Celebrities are also likely to be disillusioned and lack purpose (another key human psychological need). To paraphrase Russell again, we spend our whole lives believing that recognition, wealth and beauty will make us happy, but many famous people attain all of these and discover they remain unfulfilled. Which can lead to psychological crises.
It’s true that, in theory, the very wealthy should be able to access mental health support – long waiting lists for state-funded care being one of the major barriers for those who can’t afford private therapy. But again, the situation is not quite as clear cut as that. The more you are held up as a ‘role model’, the more aspirational your life is considered to be, the harder it can be to open up when you are struggling for fear of thwarting expectations, disappointing fans and, lest we forget, what is probably a large team of staff who rely on you to continue working for their livelihoods.
It’s for all these reasons that I believe our response to Meghan’s mental health revelations matters. Not just for her, but for all of us.
To connect with a counsellor to discuss or seek support with issues raised above, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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