When Prince Harry spoke openly about his mental health problems this week, it was a welcome diversion from the usual royal ‘stiff upper lip’ and also, very reminiscent of another royal personage, not too long ago, who also wanted to use their own issues to help others in need.
Harry’s admission, made during a podcast for The Telegraph with Bryony Gordon, allowed us a glimpse in to the reasons behind the campaign for better conversations about mental health, ‘Heads Together’. The campaign, fronted by Harry, his brother William and sister-in-law Kate, has sought to bring awareness to the problem of mental health issues and the impact they can have on other areas such as addiction, violence, and homelessness. For some time now, the campaign has consisted of a series of royal engagements, short speeches and some engaging video montage sequences. All very well done, but not really hard-hitting or particularly memorable. For someone like the prince to actually express his own difficulties with emotional issues and how it has impacted upon his life, has far more lasting effect than all of the previous occasions put together.
While listening to Harry’s podcast, I was reminded of his mother, Diana, whose willingness to share her own problems in order to help others was part of her huge success in her later royal career. I recall her speech about eating disorders, (“I have it, on very good authority…”) along with her speech to women’s charity, Wellbeing,
“I think you are very fortunate to have your patron here today, I was supposed to have my head down the loo for most of the day. I’m supposed to be dragged off the minute I leave here by men in white coats. But if it’s alright with you, I thought I might postpone my nervous breakdown.”
Diana’s tongue in cheek use of her own difficulties was partly to dilute the media’s stories of her emotional problems and partly to reach out to sufferers to let them know she understood their hardship. She sat with eating disorder sufferer groups, domestic violence groups – and was becoming a strong advocate for women’s issues globally before she died.
Harry’s willingness to open up publicly about his mental health problems and feelings of anger following the loss of his mother has the very same impact that she had in sharing what is usually ‘behind closed doors’ stuff for the royal family. And perversely, it is the very thing about Diana that the public loved and valued so much. It has been clear for some time that Harry, not William, has inherited Diana’s inherent skill in dealing with people of all backgrounds. Regardless of Harry’s feelings of anxiety, which he admitted in the podcast, he has that very magic ability to charm and seem like ‘one of us’ to those he meets – whether army veterans, pensioners, young people or the microcosm of people he meets on walkabouts.
It is an innate ability, which cannot be assumed or pretended.
Harry’s genuine approachability was again seen this week when he unexpectedly enlisted a five year old to help cut the ribbon to open the London Marathon Expo. These characteristics have helped to endear him to the public in a way that no other current royal family member can equal. Anyone who has been present at any royal event will bear testament to the roar of the crowd whenever Harry appears, in contrast to the perhaps lacklustre response to some other members of the royal family. The Queen, of course, receives the biggest cheer of all.
Harry’s quality of human warmth is so reminiscent of his mother that it might be said that he is the true heir to Diana’s legacy. His willingness to take on the mantle of her causes such as continuing the campaign to rid the world of landmines shows him to be the rightful successor to her populist crown.
Diana prided herself, above all her roles, in being a good mother. Her boys were the most important part of her life and she worked hard to instil the sort of values she believed in with them. She wanted them to understand the difficulties of the lives of others less privileged, to have empathy for the vulnerable of society and to be prepared to help, as she was. While the youngest of her two, it is clear that Harry is the one who has most embraced her ethos. Whether nature or nurture, it is apparent that Harry is her natural successor.
I can’t help but feel that if Diana could see now the impact of the life she lived, the one element she would be most proud of would be to see the transformation of her youngest son from ‘party prince’ to ‘caring prince’. As Shakespeare once showed us in his Henry IV plays, a young, wild Prince Hal might just surprise those around him by becoming the most committed, dutiful King Henry possible. And what a shame it might be that popular Harry is not the man next in line for such a title.
Instead, perhaps, we should remember the words of his mother, and think about the son she has left us to continue her work in her absence:
“I don’t see myself being Queen of this country. But I’d like the be the Queen of people’s hearts, in people’s hearts.”
Harry might never be the King of this country, but he is certainly well on his way to being embraced by people’s hearts.
Something of which Diana would have been very proud.
Photograph – Getty Images