This week’s been a big one for the Royal Family. Or maybe more accurately, it’s been a big one for mental health awareness. For the first time ever, two members of the monarchy spoke out about the stigmas surrounding mental health, encouraging support and better communication about it in the process. Which is as important as it is long overdue.
On Mad World (The Telegraph’s mental health podcast), Prince Harry opened up about life after his mother’s death in 1997, and admitted that only recently did he begin acknowledging the grief he’d pushed down in the wake of losing her. The next day, Prince William teamed up with the #OkayToSay campaign and shared a video call with Lady Gaga, in which they discussed the importance of overcoming the fear of opening up about taboo subjects.
In each case, both princes spoke eloquently and vulnerably, and also avoided turning either moment into A Very Special Episode. These conversations marked turning points for both the way we talk about our brains and emotions and feelings, and also for the way we talk about the Royal Family.
Growing up, what we knew about the Royals was what we were told, whether those things came from official statements, interviews or whatever we could gleam from paparazzi shots (of which there were many). We knew about the separations, divorces and tragedies; about outfits, dates and weddings. But while Diana used her 1995 interview with Martin Bashir to break formation and acknowledge the infidelity that defined much of her relationship with Prince Charles, the years following her death saw the media keep a respectable-ish distance. Neither the press nor the Royals indulged each other for the sake of blowing truths wide open, and while Harry and William’s youthful exploits still made the news (see: Harry’s Nazi costume), the dynamic seemed as one-sided as it had always been.
But that’s why Harry and William’s discussions about mental health are so impactful. No, we don’t know them, and true, they’re famous for absolutely no legit reason. But they’ve delivered a message outside the realm of traditional media. They’re speaking directly to their audience; it’d be like if the Queen gave her annual Christmas message after a chat with Marc Maron. Through podcasts and video chats, Harry and William casually put the Royal Family on the same level as everybody else. And that made mental health a universal issue—not one of “us” (the elite) versus “them” (everybody else). Which is a powerful message to send.
Of course, it’d be irresponsible not to cite the Royal Family as the cause of mental health issues across the world. In Canada alone, we’re still dealing with colonialism’s impact, and a system based around elitism is as dangerous as it is outdated. But it’s okay not to like what the Royals stand for while also applauding the steps they’re taking to normalize mental health issues. Just like it’s okay not to champion their legacy while also acknowledging that what Harry and William are doing now is important. For centuries, the British monarchy has hid their truths while asserting the ideal that they reign above their subjects. So it’s a pretty huge step that the future King of England has engaged with a pop star to talk about erasing stigmas in the wake of her admission of PTSD. It’s a powerful move for Prince Harry to admit that he didn’t just get over the death of his mother and needed help to confront its reality. And not just from a PR standpoint—but because it works to remind anybody watching that mental health disorders don’t discriminate.
Obviously, there’s still a long way to go. On top of raising awareness, we need adequate funding to make mental health programs universally accessible—and not just available to those with money or hailing from supportive families (which are a privilege). We need to see infrastructure established to house those who need shelter. We need to do more than just admit patients into general care for 48 hours before turning them out and assuming they’ll fill their prescriptions. Erasing the stigma is important, but so is ensuring that after that stigma is erased, our mental health system is equipped to help.
Luckily, Prince William and Prince Harry are public figures who have the funding and the following to have a significant impact. Here’s hoping this week’s advocacy becomes an ongoing conversation.