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Fighting the Stigma

As I covered in my previous blog, the current media campaign of Heads Together as fronted by Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is encouraging people to be more open about their mental health problems. This week has been a particularly high profile build up to the London Marathon on Sunday, when hundreds of runners will take part under the Heads Together banner to raise awareness and raise funds for mental health charities.

As the royal threesome stated so eloquently in their video today, mental health problems can be rooted behind so many other issues such as homelessness, domestic abuse, bereavement and drug abuse. A huge percentage of us will suffer emotional problems at some point in our lives, some of us will live with mental health difficulties for years without speaking out for fear of seeming weak or being labelled ‘nuts’.

Twitter: Kensington Palace

Over the past few weeks, several high profile celebrities have joined the campaign to start the conversation on mental health, being filmed discussing their own private difficulties and how they deal with them. The culmination of this has been the admission by Prince Harry himself that he has had to deal with his own demons in relation to the sudden death of his mother, The Princess of Wales.

I personally hope that this campaign will continue to encourage us as a nation to be more accepting of mental health illness as being just as debilitating as physical injury or disease. I have personally spent years struggling with anxiety and issues around low self esteem, initially due to a difficult childhood then exacerbated by other traumatic events that happened during the course of my teenage and adult life. I have sought to find answers to the moments of self doubt, of crippling anxiety and times of deep depression. I have turned to therapy, to counselling, to mindfulness, to exercise, to positive thinking, to medication … you name it, I have tried it. Some of it has been useful, some not at all. Each individual will find value in different strategies, and sometimes just being able to talk about your worries or express the dark thoughts you have been struggling with can be enough to clear your head.

Over the years, I have come across a wide range of responses to my mental health illness – from the “Pull yourself together” viewpoint to the much more sympathetic. I find that people who have also dealt with mental health issues themselves are usually the kindest, most understanding people of all. They have been at the bottom of that pit and they know just how dark and hopeless it can seem.

If the Heads Together campaign can encourage even a small number of people to have a better understanding of mental health illnesses, or persuade even a small number to seek help for their own desperation, then it will have been a success.

And that is surely something of huge value to us all.

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Heads Together – The Diana Harry Connection

 

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