Gaslighting A Woman Talking About Suicide Is Morally Reprehensible

Diminishing women's mental illness or calling them 'hysterical' can quite literally cost lives, yet that was some people's first people's first response to Meghan Markle's Oprah interview. It has to stop now, writes Natasha Devon.

Meghan Markle mental health

by Natasha Devon |
Published on

A few years ago on International Women’s Day, my campaign group the Mental Health Media Charter asked our followers to submit stories about the intersection between being a woman (or non-binary person) and experiencing mental illness. As responses flooded in, I noticed a theme in the accounts we were receiving – women were far more likely to be told they were ‘hysterical’, exaggerating their symptoms, attention-seeking or ‘drama queens’ when they opened up about their mental health struggles.

This is an ancient and enduring trope – ‘Hysteria’ was once a common medical diagnosis for women and could be used to describe a vast array of symptoms which would be recognised today as anxiety, post-natal depression, premenstrual syndrome or other psychological and/or hormonal conditions. Furthermore, women are statistically more likely to have any kind of pain (physical or psychological) dismissed by professionals and this is particularly pronounced for black women.

This goes some way to explaining why, whilst men are statistically more likely to take their own life (and are therefore often centred in discussions around suicide), women are three times more likely to attempt suicide and are twice as likely to self-harm. After all, if your attempts to express your emotional and psychological distress are consistently diminished and dismissed, you are more likely to feel compelled to express that distress in a way that is physical, visceral and non-negotiable in order to access the help you need.

It’s this context which makes the discussions we are having about Meghan Markle’s mental health struggles, and the media and public response to them, so important. Meghan told Oprah Winfrey during an interview which was watched by one in six British people on Monday night that she had felt suicidal during her pregnancy with Archie, and had been unable to access help. Whilst many were vocally supportive of the Duchess, admiring her bravery and candour, there was also inevitable backlash.

Most notably, Piers Morgan responded on Good Morning Britain by calling the interview a ‘two hour trashathon’. In specific reference to Meghan’s mental health difficulties he said ‘okay, let’s have the names. Who did you go to? What did they say to you? I’m sorry, I don’t believe a word she says, Meghan Markle. I wouldn’t believe her if she read me a weather report’. The segment sparked a record number of Ofcom complaints (41,000 at the time of writing) and an announcement that Morgan would be leaving the show.

Morgan’s friends and supporters have been quick to defend his ‘controversial opinions’ and to frame this is a ‘freedom of speech’ issue. But to do so entirely misses the point. There’s a reason Meghan and Harry’s story has captured the public imagination so comprehensively. Meghan has become emblematic of every woman (and there are millions of us) who has been gaslit, misrepresented or bullied, every person who has been on the receiving end of racism by people who claim ‘not to see colour’ and every woman who has had their health concerns dismissed and ridiculed.

Despite the media-led awareness-raising campaigns and the magnificent work of charities like Time to Change, stigma is still rife. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 9 out of 10 of people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives. Like all health issues, mental illnesses becomes worse the longer they are left to fester without treatment. In fact, 90% of suicides happen as a result of untreated depression or addiction. A combination of lack of access to services and stigma is therefore literally killing people.

With the eyes and ears of millions of people throughout the globe engaged with the Sussex saga, it’s therefore crucial to demonstrate that we understand mental health issues are very real, can be deadly and that we will show the same sympathy for those affected by them as we would for people who experience potentially deadly physical illnesses.

In short, we can think whatever we like about Meghan Markle (for the record, I happen to think she’s goals), but it’s morally reprehensible to cast doubt on anyone speaking about suicide, particularly if they are a woman of colour.

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