By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, Executive Director
Did you see Meghan’s and Harry’s recent Oprah Winfrey interview? It was a revelation,… and disconcerting. The couple verbalized what we at Samaritan fight against day in and day out—the social stigma surrounding mental health issues. This stigma creates a culture of crisis for millions of people every day who need help but are afraid to admit it or seek it.
Meghan’s suicidal admissions caught everyone by surprise, confessing that “I just didn’t want to be alive anymore… That was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.” She shared how she slowly started to collapse under the blanket of isolation that comes with being part of the royal family—what she called “the institution.” Making it worse was the vicious, and sometimes racist, criticism from the British press, blaming her for creating strife that she wasn’t even involved in.
She asked for counseling but was dismissed: “I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.” She sent “emails and begging for help, saying very specifically, ‘I am concerned for my mental welfare.’” They agreed that her situation was “dispropor-tionately terrible,” but then wouldn’t help because she wasn’t an employee. Where could she turn? Seeking therapy on her own would have amplified the criticism because of the stigma once the press found out. You could just imagine the British press coming up with new names for her, calling her “Mad, Mad Meghan,” or “the Disturbed Duchess.”
Harry admitted that he was “ashamed” to ask the family for help because they simply didn’t understand how the life they lived, and the pressures that life created for Meghan, could cause someone to deteriorate mentally and emotionally. They had dealt with the pressures all their lives, so they lacked compassion: “This is just how it is, this is how it is meant to be, you can’t change it. We’ve all been through it.” In other words, “toughen up, Buttercup!”
She captured in a nutshell the ignorant bias of so many when it comes to mental health. So many people falsely believe that to be strong mentally means toughing it out. Toughness doesn’t make us better. It does the exact opposite. It makes us weaker by isolating us, shrinking our resources, diminishing our compassion and empathy, and degrading our ability to connect with others and create healthy environments. Most “tough” people live isolated lives. They may have people who love them, but their distance weakens them by making them afraid of deeper, more loving relationships. They’re afraid of intimacy.
It’s also easy to dismiss Meghan’s plight by retorting, “Look at how rich she is. I wish I had her problems. Boohoo!” Maybe her situation is different from ours, but that’s a shallow reading of her quandary. Instead, look at the similarities? How many people live within unsympathetic families? How many feel imprisoned by life situations they find demeaning? How many feel powerless to verbalize their struggles? How many have reached out for help, only to be dismissively told to “deal with it,” which actually makes them less able to deal with it? How many are afraid to seek help because of the stigma associated with mental and emotional struggles (let alone spiritual struggles, which we also help with)?
Meghan’s lament feels personal to us at Samaritan because she is exactly the kind of person Samaritan helps. Okay,… we don’t deal with royalty much, but we do help people who feel isolated, criticized, dismissed, denigrated, accused, ignored, abused, and so much more. We will often talk about how we help those with “hidden wounds.”
Meghan’s wounds were hidden. Who knew that her smiling face on the cover of People Magazine hid such despair? Who knew that beneath the millions of fashionable images on the internet was a woman considering suicide? Deep wounds like these are often hidden beneath smiling faces and private lifestyles.
Growing up I saw personally how beautiful houses and lavish lifestyles can sometimes hide deep pain. At Samaritan, we’re the ones willing to look deeper and respond with care. You can’t lift the lid off Samaritan and see the healing we do, but it’s happening every day.
So, reflecting on Meghan’s interview, what can you do to overcome the stigma of mental and emotional trauma and help others? You can help people like her by doing several things:
1. If you know someone who is struggling, never, ever tell her or him to “deal with it” or “tough it out.” Refer her or him to Samaritan or another counseling agency. If you refer someone to us and we don’t have the right therapist, we will find the right therapist. Little known fact: we are so committed to healing that if we can’t help, we will find someone who can. We’re Samaritans. What we care about is healing.
2. Modulate your own thinking about mental health issues. Work on recognizing that engaging in therapy is a strength. Remember that seeking counseling reflects great strength, not weakness. Think about it. If you are going to seek counseling, you have to overcome your own stigmas against it. It takes courage to do that. So take that courageous step.
3. Be a person who cares… be a Samaritan. Encourage people who are struggling to become stronger through counseling. Meghan showed great strength in admitting her struggles. Help others to admit theirs, and help them to find help.
4. Be strong yourself by seeking your own help. If you are struggling, reach out to us. Sometimes it only takes a few sessions for people to feel better through therapy. Don’t “tough out” your own struggles. Let us or another center help you.
5. Support us in our work.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA