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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five Americans cope with some kind of mental illness. As Oprah points out, that means it's likely that even if you personally aren't "suffering from something," somebody you know likely is—and that's exactly why she and Prince Harry executive produced The Me You Can't See, a new documentary series available now on Apple TV+.
In an effort to "lift the veil" around the secrecy and stigma surrounding mental illness, the five-episode show features stories from entertainers like Lady Gaga and Glenn Close; athletes such as basketball player DeMar DeRozan and future Olympian boxer Ginny Fuchs; as well as non-celebrities bravely speaking out.
And, yes, even the well-known executive producers open up about the affects mental health has had on their lives. Throughout the series, Prince Harry vulnerably shares his struggles with anxiety, particularly after the death of his mother, Princess Diana, and during his much-scrutinized marriage to Meghan Markle. At one point, he even undergoes a session of EMDR therapy on camera.
In The Me You Can't See, Oprah also describes her own experiences with her daughter-girls from The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, as well as her mentee, Alex Molina, who suffers from PTSD.
During a virtual chat about the series, Oprah explains to me why she wanted to create this series—and why it was important to include both "regular" folks as well as notable names.
"I wanted to take off the masks to show everybody is going through something."
"It's always important to me to be inclusive of everyone. That's what The Oprah Show was about every day: including people from all walks of life, from all life experiences," she says. "And what I know is that the way to get people's attention is through people who are celebrated, who are admired, who are trusted, who have some kind of connection to other people."
She went on: "I wanted to take off the masks to show everybody is going through something. Just because they're walking on a red carpet and they're looking really pretty, and they're showing up in a video or they're Instagramming what a fantastic life they have...everybody has something. That's what this series is about."
You can watch our full interview above, or read our conversation below.
You've spoken about why you wanted to do this series. You've said, "There is an immediate need to replace the shame surrounding mental health, with wisdom, compassion, and honesty." The series weaves together different stories from Lady Gaga and Prince Harry to your mentee, to a boxer with OCD. How did you go about deciding whose stories to tell and how?
What I said from day one is what I'm still saying at the end: mental wellness, mental health, mental well-being is all on a spectrum. And we are that spectrum. We, the people of the world, are on that spectrum, and on any given day, you may be, you know, a 10: flying, high feeling, fantastic. Then something goes wrong in your life. You have a crisis, or a trauma, and you're no longer a 10, but you're moving in the seven category...or something happens to you psychologically. And you're no longer a 10 or eight. You're a minus four.
So my interest in mental health and mental well-being comes from a very personal space of trying to figure out how to manage it in my own life with my girls. And later, I had a family member who was diagnosed as bipolar. I started seeing, "Wow, this is happening to a lot more people than I realized." And what I now know is that one out of five people in the United States of America has some kind of mental illness. That means either you are, or somebody you know, is suffering from something: depression, anxiety, a combination of depression and anxiety, bipolar schizophrenia, OCD...so I wanted to include that spectrum of the "me you can't see" because everybody is sort of wearing these masks and hiding behind the acknowledgement of not allowing anybody to see that, because you were afraid of how people will then perceive you.
I wondered if you ever concerned about people focusing more on the celebrity piece while watching this, or if it was intentional so that viewers see even someone like Prince Harry has these worries.
The Prince Harry collaboration came about because in one of our first meetings, I was having just small talk conversation with him about life. And so I asked the question, "What do you think are the two most important issues facing the world?" And he said climate change and mental health. And I said, "Oh, that's interesting because I'm getting ready to do this series with Apple TV on mental health." And he said, "Oh, I'm very interested in that. You know, I have my own mental health stories and I've been dealing with patronages that have to do with mental health."
And as I turned to walk away, you know, he said, "Let me know if you need any help with that." And I went, Do I need any help? Did you say that? So I turned around and said, "Okay, I'll be sure to do that." It wasn't like let's have lunch and then you'll never have it. So that's how that came about, because of his genuine interest, because of the work that he has done for himself with his own therapist, and also because of his interest in general for the world.
He was not just a celebrity royal figure that we were using to bring attention to this. He was involved in every meeting. Really, one of our first meetings was like four or five hours. And after that, many, many, many, many, many phone calls, meetings, Zoom calls. Then he moved to the United States and then we had COVID. So there still was still Zooming, then Zooming every week as we got closer to the end.
He was always the first person on Zoom, always beating me. And I was like, Oh, I'm going to beat Harry this time. I'm going to get there before he does. Oh, no, he's already set up! He was the person turning in his notes before I did, so I always wanted to get my notes in early next time. He had lots to say about all of the stories, cuts and recuts and edits. He was a fundamental part of us making this as great as it is.
How about Lady Gaga's involvement? I remember your conversation from the 2020 Vision Tour about mental health. I wondered if that played a part in leading to this.
Absolutely. After we had that conversation on stage...somebody was filming me walking back into the green room with her, and I just really broke into tears because I had never seen a person of that level of fame be that open, truthful, candid, vulnerable about their mental health. Listen, my eyes started watering. I mean the strength that it took to do that on stage, and I certainly don't think that she came prepared to do that. We were on a WW tour, we're out here trying to entertain the audience. So the fact that she went there was just...I was so moved by that. So I had someone call her team and ask if she'd be willing to be a part of the series, because she was willing to do that onstage. And she said, she would do anything to help get the word out. And she was remarkable. She was like, "I'll let you follow me around. I'll let you go to therapy with me. What do you want to do?" So that is how that came about.
How do you protect your own mental health when you're doing so much work to help others?
I'm pretty solid. I have to say, I am really very spiritually grounded, and I practice gratitude as my number one spiritual practice. So when you're focusing on what you have, little blessings...I mean, obviously I have a lot that the world sees. But in my gratitude journal every day are the smallest of things. It's like, "Wow, I had some strawberry sorbet! Ooh, you could taste it in the back of your throat!" "Ah, wow, that sunset was like something out of a catalog from heaven!" You know, like those sunsets where the sun goes behind the clouds and then the beams come out...I actually experienced one of those yesterday. Or walking along and seeing some deer on the path.
Those are the things that are in my gratitude journal every day. I'm always paying attention to the little things, and that has helped me manage my mental health over the years. Because I have this as a regular habit for myself, it's not just talk for me. I always say all is well with my soul because I live in that space of paying attention, paying attention, paying attention, being fully present. Literally walking up the stairs, one foot in front of the other foot, I think boy, my feet are working. My limbs are working. I woke up this morning. I can actually see the sky. I mean, I'm serious about it. So when I get to heaven, can't nobody say I didn't pay attention down here. They're gonna say "Oprah, we watched you everyday girl, you was taking it all in. You were taking it all in."
I love the moment of you and your mentee, Alex, when you're on camera and you're trying to help her through what she's going through. Do you have advice for anyone watching this who says, "I have someone in my life with mental health issues, but I don't know how to help them. I don't know what to do."
Thank you for asking that question. I will say this, I debated whether to leave that whole conversation between Alex and I, where she then gets off the phone and cries and say "Oprah doesn't get it." We debated whether to leave that, because it makes me look really bad. I know I sound harsh. I mean, I remember when we were looking at the edits, the producer said to me, "You seem really harsh there." But the story that's not being told, because it would take too long to tell, it is that I came into that meeting being told that she had just had a meeting with her team there at the counseling center about what the next steps were. So I come into that meeting thinking, "All right, I'm going to hear what the next steps are." I also come into that meeting, having at that point paid for four solid months of treatment. But I made a lot of mistakes. And the biggest mistake I made, which I didn't even say this in the series, but the biggest mistake I made—because I didn't fully understand PTSD, because Alex had been telling me that she had PTSD and I'd say, "Okay, but I don't understand why you don't keep a job." So I did not fully understand how PTSD works with the brain.
And so Alex and I had a major confrontation. I'm telling you in my lifetime, I can tell you the number of times I've raised my voice at anybody, but she was yelling and screaming at me and saying, "You've done nothing for me. You've done nothing. You haven't helped me." This was two years ago. So I'm just like, "What do you mean I haven't helped you?" And she said very key things. "She says, you've given me things." I thought, well, when I helped you with your apartment and I helped you with your rent and I help you with you this and that...that's not not giving you things.
"It is an ongoing, continuing relationship of trying to help her rise to her best self."
"You've never understood what I'm going through," is what she said. That major confrontation two years ago is when I decided to seek another level of help for her. It's been a long journey. I made a lot, a lot, a lot of mistakes trying to understand—and also like, what is my role here? Why am I still involved? In my entire career, there have been two people that got my phone number where we had a relationship beyond The Oprah Show out of the thousands and thousands and thousands of guests, it was her and Maddie Stepanek, who was a little boy in a wheelchair who was a poet and a peacemaker. He and Alex are the only two people I had a relationship beyond the show with.
I am now really, I can say honestly, very proud of Alex. She now has a job that she's had for at least six months. Now it is an ongoing, continuing relationship of trying to help her rise to her best self. That's all I was ever trying to do...it's just taking longer than I realized.
For anyone who hears about this and thinks that it sounds really heavy or, "I don't know anybody with mental health issues, or I don't have anything, I'm good," why do you think that they need to tune in?
First of all, you do know somebody who has mental health issues. Because it's one out of five, and that's just the ones we know about. So there's nobody who doesn't know somebody. There's somebody in your office. You're working with somebody who's dealing with something. The whole purpose of this series is to pull down the veil to release the shame, the stigma...I've said to one of my daughter girls who has a history of schizophrenia in her family...and believe me, the first time I encountered that, I was like, what is this? But I've said to her and to other people, dealing with depression and dealing with other things, there is no shame in it, once you are willing to not try to keep it a secret.
So much shame is bred in secrecy. So being able to let people hear your story, understand your truth...every time you do, somebody says, "Oh yeah, I know somebody." Or, "I have felt that too." Or, "I understand what that is." And even if people don't immediately understand, one of the things that has been so important for me is that you are not your illness. You are not what the diagnosis is. You might be a person diagnosed with schizophrenia, but that is not your title. You are a human being who has this illness or this disorder in your brain. You are a person who experiences depression. It doesn't mean that you are a depressed person. It means that whatever the disorder is in your brain is or whatever chemical needs to be reorganized, that you need greater connection...or you need greater movement or whatever it is, that's going to be the healing process for you. You are not defined by whatever that label is. That's part of what we're trying to get people to see through The Me You Can't See.
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