During their first public interview since leaving their roles as senior royals, Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, revealed to Oprah Winfrey how detrimental being members of the monarchy had been to their mental health. While Harry had previously been candid about his mental health struggles — in 2017 he shared that he came “very close to total breakdown on numerous occasions” during an interview with the Telegraph — it was Meghan’s revelation of experiencing suicidal ideation while pregnant with her son, Archie, that hit close to home for many, including and especially mothers like me.
“I just didn’t want to be alive anymore,” Meghan said. “And that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought.”
Meghan said she asked a senior royal about the possibility of seeking inpatient care. Her request was denied because of “optics” that “wouldn’t be good for the institution,” Meghan told Winfrey. She described being scared by her suicidal thoughts “in the middle of the night that are very clear,” and even attended a 2018 event against the advice of her husband because she feared she would hurt herself if she was left alone. “This isn’t some abstract idea,” she explained. “This is methodical, and this is not who I am.”
While the couple’s interview with Winfrey was filled with a number of heartbreaking admissions — from members of the royal family being concerned about how dark Archie’s skin would be to Prince Charles ignoring phone calls from his distraught son — it was Meghan’s suicidal ideation while pregnant that left me in tears. Although I will never know the level of public scrutiny and racist vilification she endured, I do know what it is like to want to die; to feel so alone and beaten down that even the thought of your children growing up without you cannot convince you that you’re worthy of life.
I also know what it is like to be afraid to talk about those feelings openly. Suicide is wrought with judgment and stigma, and those who consider, attempt or die by suicide are often labeled as “selfish.” This is doubly true for parents, who are inundated with the idea that they must “live for their children” and, if they don’t, they somehow did not love their children enough.
Yet it is the near-constant martyrdom messaging — the idea that mothers should be willing to sacrifice everything for their children and live a life of consistent selflessness — that can leave them particularly vulnerable to suicidal ideation and other mental health issues. According to a study published last year in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, suicide attempts among pregnant and postpartum mothers nearly tripled between 2006 and 2017. It also found that suicide deaths are the leading cause of maternal mortality in the United States, and that the risk of dying by suicide is even higher for Black, low-income and young pregnant and postpartum people.
That Meghan experienced thoughts of self-harm while pregnant is not surprising. Anywhere from 15 to 21 percent of pregnant and postpartum women will experience perinatal mood disorders. As moms, we are often encouraged to project a serene and happy life free from the often common mental health ramifications of pregnancy, childbirth, sleep deprivation and isolation. But even a smiling, happy-looking royal princess can be inundated by thoughts of self-harm.
What was surprising was her bold decision to share that experience with the world, and after she has experienced endless torment from members of the media. As mothers, we are held to narrow and unattainable expectations that diminish the undeniable importance of putting ourselves first. Any admission that reveals the cold hard truth that our children, our pregnancies, are not an antidote to mental health issues — or any other issue, for that matter — is to open yourself up to additional scrutiny. Meghan must have known that.
She also must have also known that in being candid about her suicidal ideation, she would also help mothers like me, especially at a time when our collective mental health has suffered a catastrophic blow. Studies have shown that because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, rates of depression and anxiety among moms are on the rise. Mothers are burned out, overworked and even more cut off from their support systems, exacerbating preexisting mental health issues and leaving them more susceptible to new ones. It was eight months into the pandemic when I first considered harming myself, and given that rates of suicide and suicidal ideation have risen since the onset of covid-19, I know I am not alone.
And still, this country does little to support pregnant and postpartum people. Instead of mandating paid family leave, expanding access to affordable child care, and ensuring pregnant and postpartum people have access to mental health care and undergo regular mental health screenings, those in power refuse to take legislative steps that could lower the rate of suicide among new moms. The unattainable societal expectations of moms can and often do leave us feeling as though we’d be doing our children a favor — a service — by no longer being in their lives. Yet society wonders why suicide is a leading cause of death among new moms.
During the interview, Meghan thanked her husband for deciding to leave the royal family. “You made a decision that saved, certainly saved my life, and saved all of us,” she said. I just hope that Meghan also knows that in sharing her experience with suicidal ideation while pregnant, she worked to remove the stigma and shame that leaves so many suffering in silence.
And that undoubtedly saves many of us moms, too.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor at 741741.