“It was all happening just because I was breathing.”
Out of everything that was discussed in this week’sinterview between Meghan Markle, Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey, this statement captured how thinly-veiled racism dominated Meghan’s life as a royal. Its familiarity to Black women is both haunting and somewhat normal – yet to see the implications of overt racism played out on a screen, through Meghan’s fractured voice and tear-filled eyes, was difficult to watch.
Speaking candidly about how the pressures of royal life impacted her mental health, Meghan added that she had been battling with suicidal thoughts, to the point that she “didn’t want to be alive anymore”.
From a member of the royal family desiring to know what skin colour the baby would be to the toxicity of tabloid culture, Meghan’s life as a royal was shaped by racism. It is an indictment of our society that she thought of inflicting societal failures on herself.
But while speaking openly about suicidal ideation on international television was an important moment for people of colour – whose mental health is frequently shrouded in secrecy and stigma – her feelings have been sensationalised and ridiculed in ways it simply wouldn’t be for a white person.
The reaction has exemplified how, in so many cases, the narrative of “reach out for help” and “it’s good to talk” is palatable until you’re a person of colour. It’s especially raw to hear that someone may have asked for help and been denied it. In the UK, government statistics report that Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups are more likely to suffer from further issues and stigmas as a result of having a mental illness. Racism doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
As mental health campaigner Natasha Devon noted, while more men complete the act of suicide, more women attempt it and self-harm. When women express emotional distress, they’re far more likely to be told that they’re hysterical, that they’re attention seeking or “drama queens”, particularly prevalent for women of colour. If you truly believe that Meghan’s interview with Oprah is the most disingenuous interview you have ever seen, then I strongly suggest that you watch a different interview.
The impact goes beyond the realm of front pages though. A larger pattern of wellbeing posturing has emerged, where companies and those in positions of power participate in mental health initiatives and position themselves as advocates – not as a sign of commitment to ideological change, but ostensibly for good PR. It’s deeply ironic that leading members of the royal family are mental health ambassadors and front mental health initiatives that seek to “tackle stigma”, but are part of an institution that sought to suppress a member’s struggle with mental health and were complicit in amplifying stigma.
When presenter Caroline Flack took her own life last year, the #BeKind hashtag flooded the Internet, as a symbol of our intrinsic fallibility as humans and a stark reminder of the difference between perception and reality. It is now used as a decorative adornment, used to deflect criticism or propagate harmful agendas under the guise of a hashtag. The meaning of #BeKind has been lost, despite the fact that wealth is not an insulator from mental illness, and royalty is no shield from ingrained racism.
Someone’s mental health status is not open to debate or opinion.
On Monday, Good Morning Britain co-host Piers Morgan dismissed Meghan’s experience of suicidal ideation and accused her of lying. This wealthy white man continued to reinforce stigma surrounding mental health, while ITV runs a Britain Get Talking campaign centred around encouraging people to talk about mental health.
Whatever you think of Meghan Markle, Morgan’s trivialisation of mental health on national television was a slap in the face to the millions that struggle with mental health every day, proving that there is still a jarring disconnect between how we view mental health and physical health.
Someone’s mental health status is not open to debate or opinion. By invalidating Meghan’s experience, Morgan will have hurt every person out there who struggles with suicidal thoughts by fuelling the toxic narrative that claims of mental illness and suicide are suspicious. These are people who didn’t watch the interview, people who don’t care about the royal family, who are left alone with damaging thoughts that thrive on solitude and isolation. The repercussions? None. It won’t make the front pages. Ask yourselves why.
Meghan’s story isn’t overhyped or simply a tale of ‘celebrity culture’. It’s important because it is emblematic of so much: how racism chips away at your self-esteem until there’s nothing left; how mental health support is so difficult to grasp; the double standard in wellbeing posturing.
But this is just the beginning. It’s always the responsibility of ethnic minorities and Black people to speak out about racism, you see. It’s the beginning of days of the same draining conversations about why we deserve the same space, people of colour are invited to be gaslighted on television and trolled after the endless cyclical debates, and comments undo years of progress of raising awareness.
For people of colour, there is no respite.
Kimi Chaddah is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @KimiChaddah_
Useful websites and helplines
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).