Editor’s Note: If you or a loved one have contemplated suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.
When Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, began to have suicidal thoughts, she felt deeply ashamed.
“I was supposed to be stronger than that,” she said.
Meghan – who for years has been the subject of intense, often racist, scrutiny in the UK press – no longer felt like herself.
Thoughts of suicide kept her up at night and terrified her.
Her feelings became so intense that when she opened up to her husband, Prince Harry, she told him she couldn’t be left alone.
“I just didn’t want to be alive anymore,” she told Oprah Winfrey in her first interview since she and Harry stepped down as senior members of Britain’s royal family. “And that was a very clear and real and frightening, constant thought.”
The feelings Meghan described – shame, fear, hopelessness – are familiar to many who’ve experienced suicidal thoughts.
But hearing her share so openly the mental anguish she experienced is meaningful to people who’ve contemplated suicide, said Dr. Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“When a beautiful or famous or successful person says, ‘I, too, have been there,’ that creates an opportunity for some people to say, ‘If she can be in this club, I can be in this club,’” he told CNN. “Meaning it may be OK for me to talk about it, share it with someone or even seek help.”
How to get help:
Meghan’s admission opens the floor to viewers who’ve had suicidal thoughts to discuss those feelings with people they trust or pursue treatment, Duckworth said.
“If one person watches that interview and says, ‘I have struggled with this too; maybe I should reach out and get help,’ (Meghan has) done another service,” he said.
She showed how to open up
In sharing that she’s had suicidal thoughts, Meghan, a person who’s so famous that she’s recognizable from her first name alone, gave a voice to viewers who’ve thought about suicide, too.
“I think it’s a message that mental health is a ‘we problem,’ not an ‘I problem,’” Duckworth said of her interview.
Meghan’s admission also challenges the stigma of having suicidal thoughts, he said, something that many Americans have experienced during the last year of the Covid-19 pandemic: An August report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 11% of adult respondents had considered suicide in the last month.
Hearing from a well-known figure who they can trust or relate to might put into perspective some of the issues people who’ve considered suicide face, he said.
They may recognize symptoms she described within themselves, which could drive them to discuss those feelings with a mental health professional.
“It’s like physical pain – you have to attend to it,” Duckworth said. “This is a reflection of tremendous emotional distress. (Suicidal thoughts) are the body’s way of saying, ‘Stop what you’re doing.’”
She’ll spark important conversations
Thoughts of suicide can be debilitating to experience and difficult to explain. Not having the language to describe those feelings or the confidence to discuss them may lead some who contemplate suicide to stay silent, said Doreen Marshall, a psychologist and vice president of mission engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
So hearing Meghan, then, describe in detail her feelings and symptoms, like the inability to sleep and feeling trapped in her circumstances, might help viewers who experienced the same to talk about it with a mental health professional or loved one they trust.
“We talk much more freely about our physical health than our mental health and our struggles, so seeing someone like her speak out about it really sends a message that it’s OK to talk about it and that when we do talk about it, we can be met with support,” she told CNN.
Meghan is an example, too, of the benefits of asking for help.
Though her initial requests for help were denied, she eventually accessed the support she needed and can now speak about those formerly debilitating thoughts in a safe and productive way, Marshall said.
“Any time someone goes public with their story of struggling and reaching out for help, I think what it does is it sends a message to people who may be struggling in silence … that they can speak out about what they’re feeling,” she said.
She’s an example for loved ones of those who contemplate suicide
Meghan’s description of what she felt during that time may give viewers who worry about a loved one’s mental health a better idea of what some of the symptoms look like – and the confidence to address it.
If someone approaches their loved one and discloses that they’ve contemplated suicide, as Meghan said she did with Harry, the best thing their loved one can do is listen without casting judgment, Marshall said.
“It’s important that if someone does reach out to you to take it seriously,” she said. “Don’t question or judge whether they have ‘good reason’ to have these thoughts.”
If friends or family notice some of the behaviors Meghan described in their loved ones, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask their loved ones directly whether they’ve contemplated suicide, Marshall said.
“It’s OK to ask directly,” she said. “A lot of times when people who are struggling are asked directly, it’s met with relief.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has guides for initiating conversations about suicide for both the people experiencing suicidal thoughts and the trusted loved ones they go to with that admission.
The main takeaway from Meghan’s interview, Marshall said, is that it’s OK to reach out for help if you need it. It’s possible to talk about complicated topics like suicide with people you trust in a way that’s safe and supportive. And no one, from crownless viewers to the Duchess of Sussex, should have to navigate those difficult feelings alone.