Grief is a strange, silent and painfully isolating state. Its nature is to crush us like an illness, which I suppose is why we speak of being grief-stricken. It’s no wonder then that when it strikes us down, and it comes for all of us at some point, we are lost for words. We valiantly try to suppress it in the hope that it will go away and punch someone else in the guts. The problem, of course, is that there is no ignoring grief. It cannot be annihilated, only accepted. And like all mental health issues, not talking about it – and just as crucially not listening when someone tries to talk to you about it – makes it so much worse. Unbearable, in fact. As Prince Harry puts it in an extraordinarily candid interview that has reverberated around the world, “if you stay silent it’s more likely to kill you.”
The half-hour podcast, in which the fifth-in-line to the throne speaks to journalist Bryony Gordon about the decades long impact of losing his mother, Princess Diana, at the age of 12, has been described as a watershed moment. And no matter how you feel about the royal family (and I am resolutely anti-monarchy) it is remarkable to hear a person who symbolises one of the most buttoned-up, stiff-upper-lipped institutions on the planet chatting openly about the “two years of total chaos” he experienced trying to come to terms with his grief. It’s not exactly observing traditional protocols, is it? Look at what happened when his mother did something similar in the Nineties. Opening up about her struggles with bulimia and depression, Princess Diana was accused of being hungry for publicity. Twenty years later, we may have moved on (though there are always different rules for men and women, especially in public life) but that the world remains rocked by someone speaking unashamedly about mental health issues shows how powerful the stigma remains. It should not be revelatory that a person whose mother died when they were a child struggled to deal with it.
“Losing my mum at the age of 12 and shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well,” Prince Harry explains. He talks about burying his head in the sand for twenty years, about coming “very close to a complete breakdown” on “numerous occasions”, and turning to boxing when he became aggressive and felt “on the verge of punching someone”. It was when he sought help, with the support of his brother William, that he began to process his grief and the two years of “total chaos” began. He is now in a good place, running the Heads Together campaign with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, which aims to promote openness about mental health and is the official charity of the 2017 London Marathon.
When it comes to mental health, openness makes all the difference. It means that the shame that has historically been attached to depression, anxiety, other mental health issues, and grief, dissipates. It means that as a culture we might learn to listen more. To accept that mental health problems are as much a part of life as physical illness. And happiness. It means that people who are in mental, emotional and psychological pain might not feel so alone. Another interview published this week was with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, whose husband died suddenly in 2015. She speaks about everyone looking at her like she was “a ghost” afterwards and about how nobody wanted to talk to her when she needed, more than ever before, to talk. Reaching out to people who are struggling, even when you don’t know what to offer or say, can have a massive impact.
Mental health campaigners have lined up to praise Prince Harry for breaking the silence. Sir Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the prince had achieved more in a 25-minute interview than he had in a 25-year career. Marjorie Wallace, founder of mental health charity Sane, said: “It’s given a message of hope that feelings left for too long can become malignant – but that it is never too late to seek help.” Meanwhile, the prime minister Theresa May called it a “really important moment” for Britain. Whether this translates into greater provision of mental health services for the one in four of us who will at some point in our lives need them is another matter entirely.
For what needs to happen is for some of the positivity generated by this global conversation to be channelled into action. The current situation is dire and the chronic shortage in funding of NHS mental health services must be addressed. According to leading psychologists, the relentless slashing of disability benefits is leading to soaring rates of mental health problems. Last year it was reported that Scotland is facing a mental health crisis and that people are dying because they are not being offered appropriate support in time. A leaked report also revealed a shocking scale of crisis in England’s mental health services, showing a rise in suicides and a staggering 75 per cent of those needing help simply not receiving it.
Anyone pitching up to see their GP right now with mental health issues is unlikely to get anything more than a prescription for anti-depressants and a place on a waiting list for a meagre number of counselling sessions. This, in the face of reported rates of depression and anxiety among teenagers increasing by 70 per cent in 25 years. This, when suicide remains the single biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. If you are a prince you are guaranteed the best support, given immediately and for as long as it is needed. For the rest of us, there is no guarantee that our bravery in speaking out will be rewarded.