One of the most emotional moments in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s tell-all interview with Oprah is when Meghan opened up about the suicidal thoughts she experienced during her pregnancy with Archie.
“Look, 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 has suffered, but I knew that if I didn’t say it, then I would do it,” Meghan told Oprah. “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Meghan explained that the relentless, negative media coverage of her — and the palace’s unwillingness to refute false stories — caused her distress. She also said her request for mental health care was denied by the royal family; when she then went to the palace’s human resources department, she said she was told they could not help her, as she was not a paid employee.
Meghan’s account paints a bleak picture of royal life, and further elucidates the effects of the UK’s harmful and racist tabloid press. But her story is also one of resilience, and helps to eliminate the stigma around and bring broader awareness to mental health issues.
To understand more about the impact of Meghan’s story, I spoke with Elana Newman, a professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, as well as the research director at the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, a project from Columbia University that trains journalists on how to report about trauma, mental illness, and conflict.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What were your initial thoughts about the interview, and Meghan Markle’s admission that she’s had suicidal thoughts and actively sought therapy?
I see it as powerful and courageous. It’s incredible in terms of addressing the stigma of suicidal thoughts, because publicly talking about this is very important. The interview can raise that dialogue.
Some people have such shame and keep it secret. The fact that Meghan said she sought help and then that was thwarted, that also addresses the issue of how we need to improve services and access to mental health resources for people who are suicidal.
I don’t know this for a matter of fact, but I’d be curious on the usage of suicide hotlines today, in response.
Do we often see a demonstrable impact when a celebrity talks about living with trauma?
I do think Megan Markle talking about suicide has incredible cultural impact. The same was true with Princess Diana and her struggles with eating disorders; that broke through a lot of stigma as well.
There’s a lot of distrust, stereotyping, shunning, and avoidance of those affected by suicide, including family members who’ve had loved ones die by suicide. It’s something that people are uncomfortable with, and so they don’t want to talk about it. That cultural milieu prevents people who need help from seeking it, and Meghan’s interview can be very helpful in empowering people to do so.
Meghan has talked about being mistreated by the media, and the Oprah interview means there will be even more coverage of her, and about very serious and sensitive topics. The Dart Center trains journalists to talk to people experiencing trauma and to write those stories accurately and sensitively. Have you seen this kind of coverage improve?
There are certainly more conversations about how the press frames trauma now. People are changing their thoughts about, for example, how you interview rape survivors, and people are thinking about the ethical issues and informed consent. In terms of suicide reporting, in particular, it means providing resources and not focusing on the details.
In the 20 years that I’ve been doing this work, I think that there is more dialogue. People are doing more innovative reporting, even in the ways that they approach these stories.
For example, saying, “How do we look at this?” instead of going over the gory details about suicide. “How is this dialogue going to improve the conversation?” and “What are the next steps?” are questions we should be asking.
So what are the next steps?
The next steps here are continuing to educate people about the myths about suicide. There’s a conversation about increasing accessibility, too. I mean, if a princess asked for help, and couldn’t get help, what does this say about accessing mental health care? For me, that’s a real question.
What does this say about our own system in the US? If you’re feeling sick and it’s hard to get help, can you imagine what happens when it’s a stigmatized illness? Imagine the energy it takes to ask for help, and then to have that denied.
What you’re getting at, I think, is how the conversation we should be having is about inequity. Meghan Markle is a princess and has a lot of resources, and she still struggled to get help. People in poverty or without health insurance do not have those resources, and the story is radically different for them.
That’s the story there. What do we need to do to change that? What are the next steps? Because this indicates, if a princess can’t get services, what about the rest of us? And what will it take as a society to enhance access to mental health care?
In the interview, Harry and Meghan talk positively about therapy. That seems really big, too.
We don’t have these questions and stigma about treatments for blood pressure, for diabetes, or for [other] ailments. Mental health issues are and should be the same. I think the other, more radical issue for me is the whole issue of having health care and mental health care be associated with your employment.
It raised that question to me as a citizen. Here’s somebody who goes to their workplace, which isn’t [formally or technically] their workplace, but she was doing work for them. And they’re saying, since you’re unemployed, you don’t get benefits.
We need to look at how we help all the citizens of our nation get mental health care and get effective treatments.