Having dramatically exited one country’s putrescent ruling class, the former Duke and Duchess of Sussex have officially leapt into another: After landing multiyear content deals with both Netflix and Spotify, celebrity content merchant Prince Harry announced that he would be grabbing two more ersatz fiefdoms, each befitting his new American celebrity: a role as commissioner alongside others in the “thought leader” set at the Aspen Institute, and a C-suite position at BetterUp, a self-improvement tech company in Silicon Valley valued at $1.7 billion. The hires made international headlines—an outcome no doubt helped along by the couple’s ratings-smashing, heartstring-yanking Oprah interview this month, effectually marking the debut of their American brand.
Naturally, as former senior royals—in a universe Meghan and Harry convincingly depicted as toxic, stifling, and racist—the duo are hardly new to the rigors of branding. In some ways, the new lives Harry and Meghan are building together bear a striking resemblance to the ones from which they so dramatically flounced: Literal and figurative royalty are both clubs of which you will never be a part, nor will you come to enjoy the prestige, material wealth, or access to the most exclusive spaces on earth that these celebrity demigods enjoy. But if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that while the United Kingdom’s royal mega-influencers may be publicly provisioned, there’s far more money to be made off privatized brands.
For the alienated young Harry, that brand is increasingly associated with mental health. To his credit, it’s an issue about which he’s long been outspoken and that he’s made a centerpiece of past philanthropic work in Africa. Harry was tapped last year by the same elite six-figure speaking agency that reps the Obamas and Clintons to offer talks on mental health; he is also co-producing a docuseries for Apple TV on the topic with Winfrey—a project the legendary interviewer and doyenne of synergy seamlessly plugged as she drew out the couple’s harrowing story of their departure from royal duties in front of tens of millions of viewers.
In his new capacity of “Chief Impact Officer” with BetterUp, Harry will reportedly guide that firm’s social mission as well as perform a public-facing role as mental health advocate. As the prince himself put it in his introductory blog post, “My goal is to lift up critical dialogues around mental health, build supportive and compassionate communities, and foster an environment for honest and vulnerable conversations.”
Harry’s interest in mental health is sincere—he suffered the traumatic loss of his mother at a young age and has been open about his own struggles since. Meghan, too, recounted experiencing suicidal ideation as tensions mounted with the royal family and ultimately prompted the couple’s exit. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea that individuals can, and should, tend to their mental health in ways that make them happier—as Meghan and Harry both illustrate, mental illness can take hold in anyone, regardless of class status. And if people like Harry, Meghan, Oprah and others can use their media platforms to help reduce the stigma around mental illness, that’s all to the good—but overemphasizing stigma as the primary barrier misrepresents the problem.
The cloyingly techtopian jargon underpinning this venture into which Harry’s potentially profitable rising star has been absorbed raises red flags. The sort of commodified advocacy firms like BetterUp support locates the path toward better mental health solely in individuals’ heads, failing entirely to confront the structural determinants of mental health. Instead, it merely lends the discussion a progressive sheen.
The fact is, the overwhelming majority of mental anguish in society is materially produced: People living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to develop severe mental illness as those above it. Low incomes are also associated with stress, depression, and suicide attempts. Chronic homelessness deteriorates mental health, as do evictions. There are studies showing that unemployment drives depression and that low wages drive suicides. Deindustrialized regions also experience rising levels of mental illness and domestic violence after widespread job loss. One famous Princeton study found that money indeed buys happiness—income was positively correlated with levels of satisfaction up to $75,000—a relatively high salary in the top eightieth percentile of earnings.
Unfortunately, mental health care can be notoriously difficult to access: One study found a whopping 56 percent of respondents who wanted mental health care said they couldn’t afford it. Moreover, mental health providers commonly take cash only, declining any insurance at all, let alone lower-reimbursing Medicaid plans that cover poor patients. If, as Harry and Meghan demonstrate, no one is immune to these challenges, the overall burden of mental illness in the United States could certainly be significantly reduced through economic redistribution.
Naturally, there’s a hitch: Achieving those improvements would take robust public investment in communities, as well as universal health care provision, housing, and other forms of social support—things that have historically only been won through class struggle to confront the structural power enjoyed by Harry, Meghan, and their new stateside plutocratic pals. These solutions certainly find little support among multibillion-dollar firms like the one that’s eager to parade the former prince around as proof of how dedicated it is to building a better society—that specifically doesn’t threaten its own profitability.
Even more sinister, BetterUp appears to be using Harry as a way to more strongly associate its product with mental health. Before it began leaning into individual counseling, BetterUp was a job-coaching app, pitched largely to managers looking to optimize their professional workforce by helping them find more meaning in their workplace. As Founder Alexi Robichaux put it at a tech conference, “We had this profound sense at the time that we had this opportunity at work where, for the first time maybe in human history, work could actually be a platform that helps us flourish and lead more fulfilling lives instead of work being a more exhausting platform that really took out of us in exchange for money … how could work be a partnership with our employer and a partnership with the company, where it wasn’t just an economic exchange but also an existential exchange happening too?”
We already have an innovation that both bolsters workers’ satisfaction as well as their sense of meaning in the workplace and can lay claim to a proven track record for improving the mental health of workers to boot: It’s called unions, and the tech titans into whose social orbit the Sussexes have become enmeshed have spent years attempting to destroy them. Ultimately, building a world in which we can all thrive, far from the mental health concerns from which Harry and Meghan now purport to free us, will require more than a rosy social mission peddled by royals on either side of the Atlantic: It will require increasing the power of labor relative to capital. Somewhere in her veins, this knowledge stirs within Meghan Markle, a fact that revealed itself during her time in Oprah’s televised confessional: “At my old job,” she noted, “I had a union.” But the Sussexes are the bosses now, and inequality is good for business.