After Meghan Markle suggested she was struggling with her mental health in a recent interview with ITV, people have suggested she needs to “think positive” and be grateful for her wealth. But mental health issues don’t work like that, and the suggestion that they do is inherently damaging, argues Stylist’s Lauren Geall.
Most people who watched Harry & Meghan: An African Journey on Sunday will admit that it wasn’t an easy watch. Among the shots of the couple visiting a scheme working to end domestic violence and bringing their baby son Archie to meet Desmond Tutu, there were some raw, emotional and honest moments.
One of the final scenes, in which the broadcaster Tom Bradby asks Meghan Markle about how she’s doing behind the scenes, reveals the extent to which the relentless bullying, rumours and lies which have followed Meghan throughout her time in the royal family have taken their toll.
“Look,” she replies in the clip, which has been shared thousands of times on social media. “Any woman, especially when they are pregnant – you’re really vulnerable and so that was made really challenging. And then when you have a newborn – you know… And especially as a woman, it’s a lot.
“And, also thank you for asking, because not many people have asked if I’m OK,” she continues. “But it’s a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes.”
“I’ve said for a long time to H – that’s what I call him – it’s not enough to just survive something, right?” she adds. “That’s not the point of life. You’ve got to thrive, you’ve got to feel happy.”
Since the documentary aired, many people have expressed their concern for the Duchess on Twitter, sharing their sympathies for what she’s going through and praising her for speaking out. There’s no knowing what kind of mental health issues Meghan may be dealing with right now – she doesn’t explicitly name a condition such as depression or anxiety – but it’s clear that whatever it is, it’s affecting her quality of life.
Despite this, many people have decided to belittle and minimise the Duchess’ suffering (and that of her husband, Prince Harry) by suggesting that her privilege has stripped her of the right to complain or talk about her mental health issues
One particularly poignant example of this played out on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on 22 October. Among some fantastic comments about mental health and the Duke and Duchess’ comments which acknowledged that everyone can struggle, there were some contradictory remarks about the connection between privilege and mental health.
“You have to try, particularly if you feel under par, to see something positive and that you do have a lot of advantages that other people don’t,” said Royal biographer and journalist Angela Levin.
“I’m not going to say that Meghan hasn’t had a lot of changes, you know changing country, getting married, joining the royal family, having a baby – particularly having a baby – you can think you’re in control of your life but you’re not, your hormones are doing all sorts of things,” she continues. “But, on the other hand, there’s something very positive about it too, you’ve got a lovely healthy baby, you’ve got a guy who is handsome who is wealthy and absolutely adores you, and I don’t think you can say that you’re just existing. You go on holidays to see Elton John!”
Of course, Levin’s comments are not isolated – there have been endless comment pieces, op-eds and Twitter threads about how Meghan and Harry’s comments are “misplaced”, “unsensitive” and “difficult to swallow”. But what all these opinions fail to realise is that mental health isn’t something that can be bought away or pushed aside by “positive thinking” – and any comment that suggests so is seriously damaging.
People dealing with mental health conditions already struggle with the idea that they shouldn’t feel sad, down or anxious because they feel they don’t have any reason to: for example, women with newborn babies suffering from postnatal depression often feel guilty and ashamed about their condition because they feel like they should be happy to have a health baby. The thing is, mental health issues are not a direct reflection of your status in life – they’re an illness and diagnosis just as valid as any “physical” condition you can imagine.
And that leads me on to my next point. One of the major pieces of stigma still attached to mental health conditions is the idea that they are less serious or physical than “traditional” health issues – and the idea that Meghan Markle can chase away her mental health problems by thinking in a positive way is damaging and simply untrue.
Just take some time to think for a second: if Meghan revealed she was suffering from a sprained ankle, chest pain or a broken bone, how many headlines would criticise her for complaining? How many think pieces would list the privileges afforded to her status in the royal family, and provide those as a reason why she’s not allowed to feel pain from a broken bone? Zero.
The criticism being thrown at Meghan and Harry is reminiscent of the conversation started when one journalist described David Cameron’s child bereavement as “privileged pain”.
“Mr Cameron has known pain and failure in his life,” The Guardian’s article read at the time, “but it has always been limited failure and privileged pain.”
In response, mental health activist and author Matt Haig shared a comment which feels rather timely once again.
“There’s no privileged pain. Only pain,” he wrote. “No privileged death. No privileged depression. No privileged suicide. Your schooling and gender and class don’t make pain any less. Sure, privilege can help you get help for your mental (and physical) state, but pain is pain. We are humans.”
It can understandably be hard to empathise with someone like Meghan, who many consider to the be the height of privilege and success, when she talks about being unhappy with her life – but we need to try. Acknowledging people’s privilege is still incredibly important when it comes to social issues, but it should not be used to belittle and delegitimise genuine health conditions.
Yes, Meghan Markle’s privilege may mean she has more access to services, support and help when it comes to her mental health – but it doesn’t mean she can make herself feel good with a wave of her hand. Mental health conditions do not care about privilege, wealth, race, gender, class, background, sexuality or anything in between – and remembering that is really important.