By Christa Banister
While Oprah Winfrey is famous for asking about people’s big “aha!” moments — those lightning sparks of insight where a life-changing truth suddenly clicks and forever changes your way of thinking — she recently admitted she’s experienced her fair share of “aha” moments about the enormity of mental health challenges and the critical role trauma plays.
During her eponymous talk show’s 25-year run, several episodes highlighted everyday people’s struggles with depression and other mental health issues, reminding us that they don’t discriminate by gender, race, or income level and can happen if you live in the city, suburbs, or tucked away in rural communities.
With her new Apple+ TV series, The Me You Can’t See, Oprah, along with Prince Harry, approach the discussion with a new sense of urgency as she admits she didn’t understand “how serious this was.” Further illustrating the chasm were her experiences with the girls at the school she founded in South Africa, Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy.
As she sat across from Harry, she shared how she’d “spent too many nights in a psych ward” with girl after girl after girl who faced mental health challenges and even suicidal ideation. “That’s when I started to understand there’s something we’re not doing. There’s something we’re missing. I didn’t, in the beginning, understand how serious this was.”
For Oprah, the “aha” moment was realizing she couldn’t “talk it away” or merely “spend time” with those struggling, something further underscored when she met a homeless young woman named Alex.
It Began With a Car
In the realm of meme-able Oprah-isms, one that certainly vies for the top spot is the visual of a crowd jumping around, some enthusiastically whooping, others sobbing, as Oprah watches them open a small box with keys to their new wheels.
“YOU get a car, and YOU get a car, and YOU get a car!” she shouts in the sing-song cadence she’s known for. One thing that’s often forgotten when that phrase is uttered is that the audience that day was filled with deserving people who really needed a car — to pick their kids up from school, to get to work, for a shot at a successful life. It was truly a life-changing moment for them.
One of the new car owners, Alex, had a story that resonated deeply with Oprah — and it their relationship continued after the cameras stopped rolling.
A Frightening New Reality
With a father who had been incarcerated most of her life because of repeated domestic violence, and despite the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her hurting mother, Alex had finished high school. Oprah said it felt “like a Cinderella story,” and as someone with a difficult childhood as well, she saw herself in Alex. Taking her under her wing, the media mogul sent her to college.
Despite her investment in Alex’s life and total belief in her potential, the young woman continued to struggle. She loved her life but experienced nightmares from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At times she considered suicide, even though she couldn’t pinpoint why. She was angry that her past was still part of who she was today, something she says she “didn’t get a choice in.”
In episode 2 of The Me You Can’t See, titled “Asking for Help,” Oprah explains how the pair remained in dialogue and tried a couple of therapists who ultimately just weren’t a good fit for Alex. Oprah then noticed this courageous young woman “unraveling” in a way she hadn’t experienced before. It was then Oprah recognized, “Wow, I have now stepped into something I don’t understand,” adding, “It frightened me.”
Looking for more than a short-term remedy for a lifetime of traumatic experiences, Oprah found a spot for Alex at The Meadows. Over the course of a few months, Alex began to process the childhood experiences that still triggered her as an adult, leaving her stuck. While not a quick fix, she had the tools needed to continue her healing journey.
Transitioning after her time at The Meadows, Alex seems to approach her new life with optimism and hope. “It’s a big world out there, so I’m taking the training wheels off. But I know I can pedal,” she says in The Me You Can’t See.
Turning Pain into Progress
In hopes of destigmatizing mental health struggles, Prince Harry wants people to know there is “no shame” in talking about your pain or asking for help.
“What I’ve learned is that it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what’s happened to you,” he says, a distinction he feels is important as he and his wife, Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, have opened up about their mental health challenges in recent interviews.
And the royals are certainly not alone. In the United States, 70% of adults have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives, according to The National Council. As the world slowly gets back to some version of normal after a worldwide pandemic, something that has caused continued distress, loss, and led to an uptick in substance abuse and alcohol consumption, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the importance of addressing past trauma and being open about mental health has probably never been more crucial.
In her new book, What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, Oprah, along with child psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce D. Perry, MD, PhD, reflect on what they’ve learned about mental health along the way. It turns out that while what we experience in childhood may shape us forever, the pain of the past can become progress.
This “post-traumatic growth,” as Oprah calls it, allows someone to take what they’ve learned and use that to see the world differently. In essence, your pain is transformed into a superpower that can actually help other people — a journey that ultimately begins with the bravery of being open and asking for help.
Hope and Healing is Available Now
If you or someone you love is struggling after a traumatic event or facing the harrowing uncertainty of PTSD, you are not alone. At The Meadows, processing and treating trauma, often an underlying cause of substance abuse, self-harm, and mental health conditions, has always been our priority. For more information or to answer any questions you may have, reach out to the caring professionals on our Admissions Team today.