What Meghan Markle’s Experiences Tell Us About Mental Health And Racism At Work

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Earlier this month, the world watched Oprah’s much-talked-about interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (Markle). There were a lot of eye-opening things said during that interview, especially by Markle. 

One of the two most notable points concerned the racism Markle faced when becoming part of the British royal family. The other had to do with the mental health struggles she endured, including difficulty in obtaining mental health help.

Dealing with racism or suicidal thoughts, while extremely unfortunate, are hardly new challenges for many people. But what was so surprising was that someone as influential, powerful and connected as Markle would not only have to face these things, but have so much trouble getting the help she needed.

There’s been a lot of commentary about the Oprah interview and what it says about the status of race and mental health in our society. But the interview exposed some parallels on how both of these things are handled within the employment realm.

Mental Health Struggles Still Taboo

There are a variety of reasons why someone may not want to reveal or seek help for an emotional issue they’re facing. These can include shame, embarrassment or fear of being ostracized by coworkers, friends or family. So one of the biggest positives that has come from Markle’s interview is the effect Markle’s disclosures can have on reducing the stigma of mental illness. 

When prominent and well-respected individuals divulge a very personal struggle, especially those that may carry a taboo, it makes it a little bit easier for others to do the same, including having the courage to ask for help.

This positive effect will hopefully apply in a variety of different contexts, including the workplace. Bringing up a mental health concern to a boss or coworker isn’t easy, for a multitude of reasons. But the more the general public becomes exposed to the idea that people battle mental health issues, the more mainstream it will be to talk about them. 

For example, if someone is going to ask a boss for a sick day, they won’t think twice about it because they’re sick with the flu. But asking for a mental health day because of a depressive episode? A totally different story. 

While Markle’s interview won’t change things overnight, it’s a positive step in the right direction. Over time, more employees will become more comfortable taking advantage of an employer-offered mental health resource or asking for mental health-related accommodations at work.

Additionally, if more employees are asking their employers for help, it’s more likely employers will offer mental health assistance. Ironically, it may eventually become easier for the average employee in the United States to get mental health assistance from his or her employer than it was for Markle to get assistance as a member of the British royal family. 

There is another bonus from the reduced stigmatization. As more people are willing to discuss their problems, others will learn more about something they don’t fully understand. With this greater understanding, there is the potential for less discrimination because of someone’s mental health.

Racism Is Still Prevalent and Sometimes Less Obvious

Probably the most explosive announcement made by Markle during the Oprah interview was the treatment she faced because of her race, especially from at least one member of the royal family. Then on top of that, there were suggestions that Markle was lying about the racism she experienced.

This is often mirrored in discrimination cases in the employment arena, where someone suffers racial discrimination, but their concerns are dismissed. This is especially true when the racism is more subtle.

One of the most repeated portions of the Markle interview concerns what a member of the royal family allegedly said when expressing concern about “how dark [Archie’s] skin might be.” And before she married Prince Harry, the British media took racial shots at Markle, such as how she was “(almost} straight outta Compton” and that she had “exotic DNA.”

While not the most heinous commentary or behavior possible, the coverage was clearly racist. Yet subtle enough to be plausibly denied when accused of racism.

This is a lot like the racial discrimination that occurs in some workplaces. Many employers are smart enough not to act in an obviously racist manner, or at the very least, not do so in writing. This is one reason why many racial discrimination cases rely on the theory of disparate impact, which does not require plaintiffs to prove the employer intentionally discriminated against them.

There’s also the concept of pretext, where an employee alleges that the employer’s non-discriminatory explanation for its actions is just a cover for its real motivation, which is based on discriminatory intent.

Whether it’s an average employee or Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, proving racist behavior can sometimes be a challenging endeavor.

Even the Powerful Can Be Victims

It doesn’t matter if you’re an executive or job applicant, you can still face depression, anxiety or another mental health concern. Late last year, Matthew Cooper, the Co-Founder of EarnUp announced he was stepping down as CEO due to his continued battle with mental illness. And due to the coronavirus, many business leaders are facing the task of not only helping employees with their mental health issues, but also their own.

Racism is no different in that it can affect anyone. In early 2020, two Black women filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s claiming racial discrimination. These were high-level executives who alleged they were not only victims of racial discrimination, but also retaliation when they opposed McDonald’s alleged “ruthless purge” of high-ranking Black executives.  

The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, executive or a duchess, you may still deal with racial discrimination and mental health struggles. But the good news is that thanks to people like Markle, these concerns are facing greater awareness and less stigma.

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