Memoirs of Mental Health: Oprah Winfrey

I loved watching the docuseries, The Me You Can’t See, produced by Oprah and Prince Harry. As a lover of stories, I especially appreciated the interviews with Lady Gaga and Prince Harry (post on him coming soon). What surprised me the most was how forthcoming Oprah was about her own mental health. Today, I’ll be sharing some of what I learned.

Childhood, Abuse, and Hope

Oprah’s childhood was characterized by poverty, several transitions between households, and neglect. O shares that she was raised by her grandmother for several years due to her mother’s struggle to provide for her children (a teen mom at the time of Oprah’s birth). She also discusses the confusion she felt when sent to live with her mother, who she barely knew, only later to be passed around to other relatives due to the mother’s ongoing challenges with managing her parenting responsibilities.

O shares how she faced colorism when first arriving to stay with her mother; most notably, how she was forced to sleep outside on a porch when the light-skinned family friend (whose house it was) took offense to how dark Oprah was. Sadly, her mother failed to defend her against this type of racism.

Between the ages of 9 and 12, Oprah was molested and raped by a cousin, an uncle, and a family friend. As is all too common in the Black community, she remained silent about her abuse well into adulthood. Having read and watched her portrayal of Sophia in The Color Purple, I didn’t realize how close to home her iconic quote, “A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men” was.

Oprah found hope during those years through the loving teachers she encountered at school.

“Connection to anyone that cares about you can make a world of difference.”

Awareness

Given her own experiences, Oprah later paid it forward by opening a school for girls in South Africa, The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. In the documentary, she chronicles the rude awakening that came when she took these girls out of chaos and placed them into the school’s structured environment. As many of the girls began to act out behaviorally, Oprah learned that while you can provide opportunities and education, it’s also vital to also address trauma and mental health. Despite being an advocate for mental health since the 80s, she is forthcoming in the documentary about how it is still hard to wrap her mind around the nuances of mental illness, hence the inspiration for the documentary.

Conclusions

I’ve always admired Oprah’s resilience and philanthropy and I look forward to digging deeper into her story (Just added her book on trauma, What Happened to You, to my reading list.)

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