7 Things a Therapist Wants Us to Learn From Meghan Markle's Brave, Heartbreaking Interview
We're still processing what we saw and heard in the conversation between Meghan Markle, Prince Harry, and Oprah Winfrey on Sunday. Yes, a whole tornado of royal drama is brewing in its wake, but it was Meghan's raw and vulnerable confessions about the decline of her mental health while part of the royal family that left us heartbroken. She spoke about dealing with intense loneliness, being silenced, having suicidal thoughts, and not receiving the help she needed and asked for. To help us understand Markle's experiences, we spoke to Los Angeles-based therapist Chevonna Gaylor, LMFT, and asked what we can take away from the raw and revelatory interview and how we can use Markle's courage in speaking out to help others who are in pain.
There's Power in Sharing Your Story
Especially for someone who has been silenced for so long, there's power in being able to publicly take ownership of your story, Gaylor said. It's a form of healing and a kind of "narrative therapy approach" to be able to share your story in a way that gives you confidence, she explained. That tracks with why Markle was ready to speak out, as he told Winfrey: because she wanted to share her side of the story, own her experiences, and move forward.
At the same time, sharing your story can make you feel intensely vulnerable and "relatively exposed," Gaylor said. It's imperative to have a support system in place to help you during and after you speak this kind of painful truth, be it family, friends, or a mental health professional.
Depression Can Feel Like a "Dark Tunnel"
Watching the interview, Gaylor noted several struggles that appeared to have fueled Markle's suicidal ideation: loneliness, losing coping mechanisms such as time with friends or family outside the royal family, and a disconnect between the person Markle knew she was (a strong, outspoken, independent advocate for women's rights) and her silent, isolated reality.
"Whenever we're not being consistent with who we are at our core, whenever there's a dissonance between who we're presenting as and who we truly feel we are, that's going to lead to a level of emotional distress," Gaylor told POPSUGAR. "When she mentioned that 'I advocate for women's rights and I have felt silenced' . . . that emotional distress is the criteria for all mental health diagnoses, and that comes when we're not able to consistently present outwardly who we are inwardly."
Depression is like a "dark tunnel," Gaylor said. On the outside, "it could be the most beautiful, sunshiny day," she explained. But on the inside, the tunnel is "long and it's uncertain. You may not know or be able to see the end to that darkness." That metaphor couldn't be more apt for Markle's situation. Sure, she was a famous duchess, a successful actress; sure, she had a husband who loved her. But when you're stuck in an endless tunnel, it doesn't matter how bright the sun is outside — you start to forget it's even there.
Denying Help Can Be Crippling
When you're isolated and cut off from coping mechanisms, as Markle said she was, one way out of that depressive spiral is to ask for help, Gaylor said. Markle said she did so, going to "the institution" (the group of officials who work for and around the royal family) as well as the palace's HR department, only to be turned away both times. Gaylor put the impact of that denial in context.
There's a stigma that it's weak to ask for help for your mental health, "but actually, it takes so much courage," she said. "The hero in any story is the person who has the courage to ask for help." Usually, by the time someone reaches out for help, they've thought about it over and over, debating whether they should, convincing themselves they shouldn't, before mustering up "every ounce of emotional fortitude" to take that step. "So imagine how it feels," Gaylor said, to be misunderstood, faced with a lack of resources, or flat-out denied that help.
All of that can make the dark tunnel feel endless, and make ending one's life feel like the only option; Markle said she thought it would "solve everything for everyone." That doesn't mean she didn't love her husband or her unborn child, Gaylor said. It just means that "things felt so dark that she could only see that tunnel."
Binary Thinking Creates Conflict
That also speaks to the danger, Gaylor said, of binary thinking — that things have to be black and white, this way or that way — when we're talking about mental health. We saw this come up a few times in the interview, like when Markle reminded viewers that they didn't have to criticize Kate Middleton in order to support Markle, or vice versa. Gaylor agreed: "It's not either/or." It can be both: "She is a good person and I am a good person . . . It doesn't have to be 'or.' We can embrace the 'and.'"
That goes, too, to people who doubted the veracity of Markle's suicidal thoughts or traumatic time with the royal family, simply because she seemed to have it all: money, fame, success, a loving marriage. That's a damaging precedent to set; you never know what people are going through based on how it looks on the outside. It's also another example of all-or-nothing thinking. "She has money, she has resources, she has to be happy," Gaylor said. "That's either/or, and we have to be able to be comfortable with the 'and.'" You can have all of that and be struggling.
Set Boundaries in a Toxic Family Situation
Gaylor noted that Markle and Prince Harry took several steps to deal with and extricate themselves from what clearly was a toxic situation for them within the royal family, especially when it became clear how deeply it was affecting Markle's health.
"What they both addressed was being able to set boundaries with people or things in our lives that are no longer serving us," Gaylor pointed out. Paying attention to how you feel when you spend time with someone and how that relationship affects your mental health can help you see when the bad outweighs the good, which is a sign to set boundaries. And setting those boundaries isn't a bad thing, Gaylor stressed: "Sometimes when we set a boundary, it allows us to preserve the relationship."
And if communication and boundaries don't work, the next step is to do what Markle and Prince Harry did: remove yourself from the toxic situation.
Racism in the Royal Family Should — and Now Can — Be Confronted
One of the most disturbing portions of Markle's interview was her allegation that a member of the royal family had expressed concerns over how "dark" her child might be. Add that to the racism evident in the media's treatment of Markle from the very beginning and the issue appears to permeate both the royal family and the broader business and media apparatus around it.
"Meghan Markle coming into the family shook the family up," Gaylor said. "It caused some of the underlying and core beliefs that people may not have even been aware of to rise to the surface." As unforgivable as the treatment of Markle was, her speaking out ideally means that calling out and correcting racist actions will become more of the norm in this space.
"Until we identify it, we can't change it," Gaylor said. "Now that it's been called out and named, we can make it better. We can fix it, we can address it."
Markle's Story Can Shine a Light For Others
Not only was the interview, hopefully, a way for Markle to heal and make her voice heard, it can also show others that it's OK for them to do the same. Which is why, even with the predictably sexist and callous backlash following the interview ("Anytime women publicly share their story" of abuse or pain or mistreatment, people question their character or integrity, Gaylor noted), these moments push us closer to the light.
"The beauty is when people have the courage to honor their voice in spite of [the obstacles], that's how we break down these walls," Gaylor explained. "Because for everyone who has negated her story, there have been so many others who say, 'Wow, I feel seen . . . I feel understood. I'm so glad that she had the courage to do it. Maybe I can ask for help too. Maybe I can own my story too.'"
If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal ideation or are at risk, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has several resources and a 24/7 lifeline at 1-800-273-8255