Like the rest of the country, I spent last Monday 8 March with my eyes glued to the TV screen, nursing a mug of tea and witnessing Meghan Markle, former actress and the Duchess of Sussex, pour her heart out to Oprah Winfrey. Discussing her and Prince Harry’s decision to step down from their role as senior members of the royal family, Meghan openly spoke about the toll her life as a member of the royal family took on her mental health. It is important to note that the primary aim of this piece is not to vouch for any side of the “Royal Family versus Meghan” debate — though it wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce my general opinion. What I do wish to touch on is this specific conversation of Meghan’s struggle with suicidal ideations — and the media’s response to it.
It is no secret that the mainstream media has been spewing racist hatred toward and spreading unfounded rumours about Meghan for the past few years. She was deeply scrutinised and accused of being a bully, a gold digger, and, most infamously (and laughably), of “fuelling drought and murder” (or, in plain English, “having avocado toast for breakfast”). However, we are just now hearing from Meghan herself the real impact it had on her.
In the Meghan case, I see two outstanding examples of unbelievably abhorrent irony. For one, the media hearing Meghan openly speaking about the distress they caused her, so much so that she considered taking her own life — only to immediately take to the media to paint her a liar and an attention-seeker. Secondly, much of what Meghan seemed to be saying was that speaking candidly to Harry about her internal struggle with thoughts of suicide was what allowed her to begin to heal. The fact that people are now criticising her for doing just that is disheartening.
Many have pointed to Duchess’s immense privilege — after all, she is a beautiful Hollywood actress married to a literal prince. Her life was painted by several media outlets to be a fairytale. However, it is a fact that poor mental health does not discriminate. By implying she is too privileged to feel pain, the media is invalidating the struggle of hundreds of “privileged” people who suffer from mental health issues.
This question is especially relevant given the current mental health crisis the pandemic has plunged us into. In fact, Meghan herself likened much of her time as a senior member of the royal family to the current lockdown situation many of us are in. Describing the sense of isolation, limitation, and loneliness she felt when living in England, I’m sure many were able to, at least at some level, resonate with her description of the situation.
The narrative that the media is spreading that someone’s level of privilege makes them immune to mental health issues can be extremely discouraging to many. Of course, several people have had the right end of the stick during the pandemic; many of us have been extremely lucky to be healthy enough to not have to worry about the fatality rate of the coronavirus, to wait out lockdown in a loving home, to not have to worry about financial security — however, none of this makes anyone immune to suicidal thoughts.
A new survey by Network Rail and the charity Chasing the Stigma suggests that around two-thirds of young people are suffering from a deterioration in their mental health. Symptoms of depression and anxiety have deepened and this is no surprise — the isolation of social distancing, anxieties about the virus, and a general lack of the little things that made life exciting all produce a pretty potent potion for mental distress. For some, COVID-19 has exacerbated symptoms of mental health issues that were already existing. For others, this new reality has possibly brought some scary emotions and feelings to the surface. Now, perhaps more than in several years, is a great time to emphasise the importance of reaching out — be that to friends, family, or others.
The berating and shaming of Meghan in the media for doing just that is likely discouraging to many. The Duchess may not necessarily be reading each and every one of the media’s nasty comments about how she is faking it, how she is a liar, how she is too privileged to be suicidal. However, for a casual consumer of the media, one who may be suffering from depression, anxiety, or other forms of poor mental health, one who may be keeping all this to themselves, to see Meghan labelled an attention-seeker for simply discussing her past struggle can make them less likely to reach out for help themselves.
The role Meghan’s race plays in the matter is not lost on me — the narrative of Meghan as disingenuous, attention-seeking, or conniving plays into several harmful stereotypes that are used to describe women of colour. Further, black, indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) are less likely to have access to mental health services and less likely to seek out services despite suicide rates being higher within the Black community. The Congressional Black Caucus reported a 73 per cent increase in the suicide attempts of Black adolescents between 1991-2017. When the underutilisation of mental health services by BIPOC is such a prevalent issue, a high-profile person of colour to speak so openly about her struggle with mental health is significant.
The bigotry Meghan was experiencing from the media as a mixed-race woman was compounded with the severe risk of depression during and after pregnancy. The link to her mental health issues and pregnancy is also an all-too-familiar yet rarely talked about issue. Figures estimate that perinatal and postpartum depression affect approximately two in ten people during pregnancy and one in ten people after pregnancy respectively, though many experts say these figures are an underestimate. Gender stereotypes promote the view that mothers should be self-sacrificing and prioritise the well-being of their child. Any concern with their own well-being is seen as selfish. The problems of pregnant women are usually made out to be minor, delightful even — a chocolate craving and flushed skin, some might even say a glow. How could pregnancy be anything but beautiful? While Meghan did not explicitly say if she had been diagnosed with perinatal or postpartum depression, she did go against the popular image of pregnancy as a happy, if occasionally painful, phenomena. It is for this reason that many pregnant people hesitate to ask for help and the sheer strength she showed in putting her experiences as a mother into words with such grace, honesty, and candidness is inspiring.
When scrolling through the many abhorrent tweets about Meghan following the interview, I was reminded of a woman that died by suicide a little over a year ago; a woman who experienced an immense about of vitriol from the media which ultimately led to her death; a woman who, only after her suicide, people began to show some concern for — Caroline Flack. Following her suicide, #BeKind trended, with people urging us to be respectful and empathetic on social media because we never know what someone is going through internally. Yet, just days before, the same people had been spewing hatred toward Caroline herself. It seems as if concern for mental health only matters when it is too little, too late.
It is no question that no matter that what was said in the interview, it would spark a conversation. However, the fact that this debate has become so centered on whether or not Meghan was truly suicidal is upsetting. Whether or not you see Meghan and Harry’s story as valid or legitimate, Meghan’s mental health is not up for debate and feeds into a dangerous narrative that someone’s mental health only matters when it is too late for us to help them.