The lesson of Prince Harry’s grief ? We need mental health services for all.
0ne of my strongest memories of attending Princess Diana’s funeral is of sitting up high in Westminster Abbey and looking down on her young sons. During the long service no one touched them or hugged them, though everyone was moved by the handwritten “Mummy” card on top of her coffin. The much reviled Sarah, Duchess of York leaned over to see if they were OK. Otherwise, nothing. They were to be “brave”, I suppose. They had walked behind that coffin for a very long way, their heads bowed, impassive. Why had they been made to do that?
The dysfunction of the first family was challenged and disrupted at the funeral by Earl Spencer’s speech. The public grief was dismissed by much of the establishment – as Diana was herself – as hysterical, and it proved the polar opposite of the royal reaction. The family holed up in Balmoral. Charles could now work to get everyone to accept Camilla as his partner, which they largely did. And the boys? It seemed they must just get on with it.
Twenty years later, in a lovely interview with Bryony Gordon in the Telegraph, Prince Harry has now spoken about his grief and how it affected his mental health. The stiff upper lip and the repression required to keep it so is not the way forward. Acknowledging the problems and talking about them is.
The loss of his mother when he was 12 was at the root, Harry says, of his feeling of anxiety, which manifested itself in “fight or flight” responses when in public. He talks of his aggression – he found boxing helped with this – and the feelings of internal chaos and breakdown that come after a deliberate shut-down of emotion. He didn’t want to think about his mother as it would be too sad. Yet, of course, not thinking about loss does not mean its effects go away. Harry was supported by his brother, William; “shrinks” helped as well; and finally, being open helped too.
Alongside this, he, William and Kate saw that in much of their charity work, mental health was intrinsically bound to many other issues, but not always addressed.
Harry has rightly been praised for talking personally and thus destigmatising mental health issues. This is no doubt excellent. The normalising of mental health problems, which it is estimated will affect a quarter of us at one time or another, is necessary, but so too is funding. Mental health services are in a very poor state and it is almost impossible to get help. Many people in Harry’s situation would not get access to counselling and would be offered antidepressants and possibly a short course of cognitive behavioural therapy, as this is considered most cost-effective. In acute cases, people in a state of severe breakdown are now forced to go to hospitals far from their homes because there are no beds to be found nearby. This is a real crisis, and it is more visible by the day on our streets.
Royals doing charitable work can help, but we need to think about how the whole of society copes with an epidemic of mental health problems in our young people.
Harry’s likeability and frankness, alongside William’s, have helped to rehabilitate the royals’ image: a facade of modernisation. Remember that at the time of their mother’s death the family was viewed as out of touch, anachronistic. Their lack of emotional engagement seemed to belong to another era. Charles’s treatment of Diana, and her refusal to accept the script that had been written for her, threatened their popularity. Lessons were learned and the princes have been part of this PR.
Indeed, Harry is not the first royal to go public with such issues, although I am very glad he has. His mother talked, after all, of her struggles with bulimia and her suicide attempts. She spoke of difficulties with self-esteem and how bulimia gave the illusion of comfort, followed by disgust. She talked of feelings of self-revulsion and the compulsion to “dissolve like a Disprin” back in 1993. Many dismissed her then as unstable, attention–seeking and manipulative as a result.
Twenty years after her death, the fact that her youngest child can open up in such a way and be widely praised for it shows, I hope, that the world has moved on. Now it’s time to make the help and support that was available to a prince available to all.