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High-Functioning Depression: Why Meghan Markle Is Not Unique

A big smile may hide a world of pain.

“I just didn’t want to live anymore,” a tearful Meghan Markle told Oprah, and the world was shocked. It was even more stunned by the video of Meghan wearing a glittering blue ball gown and a radiant smile, attending a royal function the very same day she had told Prince Harry she was afraid to stay home alone, for fear she would do harm to herself.

I wasn’t surprised in the least. I know all too well what a smile can hide.

Most of my life, I’ve lived with high-functioning depression and suicidality. I’ve performed at the very top of my game as an entertainment lawyer, representing the likes of Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones and major motion picture studios while simultaneously struggling with a desperate desire to end my pain forever. Now, as a mental health advocate and author, I realize that I’m not alone—that a great many people who seem to be handling life’s challenges with extreme grace and competence are secretly battling the crippling disease of depression.

Meghan hid her suffering behind a careful presentation. I learned to do the same. The night before a deposition with Michael Jackson, I ran out to Saks and bought a crisp white shirt with long French cuffs, to hide the raw scars of a recent suicide attempt. I worried more about that damning “evidence” of my depression than about anything Michael might say. I was sure if anyone found out the truth—that I had a severe mental illness—I would be finished at my law firm, and in Hollywood. It had taken me years to reach this point in my career, and I had a lifestyle to maintain. Coming out of the closet and asking for help just didn’t seem to be an option.

But that was back in the ’90s, and the world has matured a great deal since then—although in my opinion, it’s still horribly naive about the prevalence of depression in high-functioning people and the attendant risk of suicide. For example, whatever one may think of lawyers, they’re generally considered to be smart and effective people. They have to be to get through three years of intense schooling and pass the bar exam, right? But according to the Centers for Disease Control, the profession ranks fouth in terms of suicide risk—right after physicians, whom we also regard with some reverence.

The problem is our stereotypical notion of mental illness, which has been fostered by uninformed media portrayals for far too many years. When we think of major depression, we don’t picture a beaming Meghan Markle, cradling her baby bump and navigating the hordes in high heels. We think of a miserable wretch alone in a darkened bedroom, maybe cradling a bottle of whiskey instead—a castoff, adrift from the sea of life. Or a penniless drudge, beaten down by the neurochemical odds into a menial, meaningless existence.

We don’t think of Winston Churchill, a successful depressive, vowing to “never surrender.” And we should. We should think of the stunning Anne Hathaway, who recently portrayed me in an episode of “Modern Love” on Amazon. She got the story right: Depression may sap your energy, but it doesn’t have to steal your soul. It’s a diagnosis, not a destiny. If you’re an overachiever like me, you continue to overachieve because that’s what you were born to do. But it doesn’t mean you don’t feel tremendous pain and that sometimes you have to wear your smile like it’s armor.

Meghan Markle knows this. It sounds like Prince Harry knows this now, too. I applaud the Oprah interview for bringing high-functioning depression and suicidality to the attention of the world, but I think we need to go further. What can you do if you suspect that someone you know might be silently suffering? I strongly recommend these three things:

1) Keep your eyes open. Severe depression and suicidal ideation may not manifest in obvious ways, but there are often tell-tale signs in everyday patterns—changes in sleeping or eating habits, unusual irritability, and reliance on drugs or alcohol.

2) Say this to the person you’re concerned about: “Tell me where it hurts.” No advice, no well-meaning platitudes, no dismissive positivity. Just say those five little words, and listen. Really listen, because a life may well depend on it.

3) Believe what the person tells you, even if it goes contrary to everything you see and everything you think you know.

Oprah essentially said to Meghan Markle, “Tell me where it hurts.” The world may be shocked by what it heard, but it’s a wiser and better place for hearing it.