From Princess Diana to Prince Harry: Why the Royal Family Is Getting Candid About Mental Illness Like Never Before

Another way the modern royals have become more relatable for their subjects over the years

By Natalie Finn Apr 17, 2017 9:13 PMTags

Aside from the surplus of tabloid reading material the members of Britain's royal family help provide, one of the their chief contributions to the everyday lives of its subjects is its vast array of patronages—the various causes, from homelessness and veterans affairs to tennis and cricket, that they officially support.

Queen Elizabeth II herself is linked to more than 600 organizations as royal patron or president, Prince Charles has more than 400 and the list is ever-growing for Prince William, Kate Middleton and Prince Harry.

But while anybody would be spread pretty thin attempting to minister to hundreds of charities and organizations at once, there aren't that many which require constant vigilance, or through which lives hang in the balance (for instance, Kate and Will are patrons of the National Portrait Gallery, but that presumably doesn't keep them up nights).

Increasingly, however, there's been a cause that's proven extremely close to the young royals' heart, one that affects people the world over and can never have enough support from those in high places—and that's mental health care.

Kate Middleton and Prince William Visit Paris

Prince Harry has drawn positive responses from around the globe, including from mental health professionals, for the candid interview he recently gave to Telegraph reporter Bryony Gordon's Mad World podcast, in which he revealed that he suffered for years from depression and behavioral issues after his mother Princess Diana's death in 1997.  

"I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and all sorts of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle," the 32-year-old told the newspaper.

"My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?" Harry, who was 12 when his mom was killed in a horrific car crash in Paris, said. "And then [I] started to have a few conversations and actually all of a sudden, all of this grief that I have never processed started to come to the forefront and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with."

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Harry said that William, who was all of 15 when Diana died, eventually helped him realize that he needed counseling. Revealing that he saw a therapist "more than a few times," Harry said, "The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you're part of quite a big club. "I can't encourage people enough to just have that conversation because you will be surprised firstly, how much support you get and secondly, how many people literally are longing for you to come out."

While Harry has been a staunch advocate for mental health education and treatment, this marked the first time he publicly opened up about battling depression himself.

"He has a reach across the world that people like me can only dream—he will have communicated in a way that I have been working all my life to achieve," Sir Simon Wessely, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Guardian in response to Harry's interview.

Mental health experts also pointed out how important Harry's interview was because men are far more likely than women to not seek treatment, with men in the U.K. also being three times as likely to commit suicide as women as of December 2016.

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Both Harry and William have noticeably talked more in recent months about the effect their mother's death had on them—which has proved cathartic for them and for an entire kingdom that still feels the sting of Diana's tragic passing nearly 20 years later—and their devotion to mental health causes is no coincidence.

And despite it being such a universal affliction, mental illness is still often considered the ailment you can't talk about, for fear of being stigmatized as "not all there" or worse.

"Mental health was the great taboo. If you were anxious, it's because you were weak," William said in February at an event for the Guild of Health Writers. "If you couldn't cope with whatever life threw at you, it's because you were failing. Successful, strong people don't suffer like that, do they? But of course—we all do. It's just that few of us speak about it."

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Among the patronages the 34-year-old father of two and his wife share is Place2Be, a charity devoted to children's mental health and providing parents with the best resources possible to be there for their kids.

Last year, Harry, William and Kate launched the Heads Together campaign, a collaboration with multiple charities that are working to educate and provide resources and services for people affected by mental health issues—which can manifest themselves in so many ways and affect so many.

William said that his work as an air ambulance pilot exposed him first-hand to the scourge of suicide. "For Catherine and Harry," he added, "their journeys to Heads Together were different: Harry predominately through his work with veterans, and Catherine through her work with children and young families. But their conclusions were the same—that mental health needed to be brought out of the dark and de-stigmatized."

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While the trio have been dedicating their time to this cause for some years now, 2017 truly has been a groundbreaking year so far for just how much the royals have been willing to put themselves out there personally in an attempt to erase the stigma once and for all.

Just last month, Kate revealed at an event for Best Beginnings that even she—when most people were focusing on her clothes and how quickly she got outside the hospital to wave to the crowd—had her postpartum struggles after becoming a mother.

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"Personally, becoming a mother has been such a rewarding and wonderful experience. However, at times it has also been a huge challenge," the Duchess of Cambridge said. "Even for me, who has support at home that most mothers do not. Nothing can really prepare you for the sheer, overwhelming experience of what it means to become a mother. It's full of complex emotions of joy, exhaustion, love, and worry, all mixed together."

The 35-year-old, the mother of wee heirs Prince George and Princess Charlotte, continued, "There is no rule book, no right or wrong; you just have to make it up and do the very best you can to care for your family. For many mothers, myself included, this can at times lead to a lack of confidence and feelings of ignorance. Sadly, for some mothers, this experience can be made so much harder due to challenges with our very mental health."

"If any of us caught a fever during pregnancy, we would seek advice and support from a doctor," she added. "Getting help with our mental health is no different. Our children need us to look after ourselves and get the support we need."

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Aside from the stark statistics that show the work that still needs to be done, any sort of revelation from the likes of Kate Middleton, someone who millions of women look to as the epitome of perfection in style and composure, is a win in the fight to combat the persistent reluctance to come forward with mental health issues—whether it's because a man doesn't want to look weak, or a woman doesn't want to be perceived as incapable or an unfit mom.

"Heads Together wants to get people talking," William said last year at the campaign's official launch. "The more we talk about mental health, the more normal the topic becomes, and the more we feel able to open up and seek support."

With the tendency to stay silent still one of the biggest barriers toward wider acceptance and treatment of mental health disorders in this day and age, 2017, imagine how much of a risk Princess Diana felt she was taking when she admitted 22 years ago to suffering from postpartum depression.

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"It had been quite a difficult pregnancy—I hadn't been very well throughout it—so by the time William arrived it was a great relief because it was all peaceful again, and I was well for a time," Diana, who was 20 when William was born, said during her landmark 1995 interview with the BBC's Martin Bashir, given several years after she and Prince Charles had separated.

"Then I was unwell with post-natal depression, which no one ever discusses, post-natal depression—you have to read about it afterwards, and that in itself was a bit of a difficult time. You'd wake up in the morning feeling you didn't want to get out of bed, you felt misunderstood, and just very, very low in yourself."

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Diana said that she had never experienced depression before—another leading reason why mothers feel so unsure of what they're experiencing, also considering it might not even happen with the first baby but after subsequent births—but figuring out what it was was the first step toward recovery.

"I received a great deal of treatment," she revealed, "but I knew in myself that actually what I needed was space and time to adapt to all the different roles that had come my way. I knew I could do it, but I needed people to be patient and give me the space to do it."

Asked how the royal family reacted to her struggles, Diana replied, "Well, maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful. And obviously that was daunting, because if you've never seen it before how do you support it?"

"It gave everybody a wonderful new label," she added. "'Diana's unstable and Diana's mentally unbalanced."' And unfortunately that seems to have stuck on and off over the years."

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A 2001 biography disputed previous reports about Diana that she attempted suicide multiple times, including once by throwing herself down the stairs while pregnant with William (which would call Diana's claim she never experienced depression before becoming a mom into question).

"It's a horrible distortion of a woman that simply was not like that," biographer Phil Craig told ABC News in 2001. "It's fair to say during the last few years of Diana's life that she was perhaps disturbed at times, but to say she was mentally-ill throughout her life is nonsense."

Diana did, however, admit to instances of self-harm—another groundbreaking admittance for a member of the royal family, let alone a woman of her stature.

"When no one listens to you, or you feel no one's listening to you, all sorts of things start to happen," she recalled. "For instance, you have so much pain inside yourself that you try and hurt yourself on the outside because you want help, but it's the wrong help you're asking for. People see it as crying wolf or attention-seeking, and they think because you're in the media all the time you've got enough attention...So yes, I did inflict upon myself."

Remembering Princess Diana

Diana continued, "I just hurt my arms and my legs; and I work in environments now where I see women doing similar things and I'm able to understand completely where they're coming from."

She concluded that Charles didn't understand what she was going through, what could possibly have brought her to hurt herself, "but then not many people would have taken the time to see that."

A former aide of Diana's told the Mail on Sunday years later, long after the princess' death, that she regretted doing the interview, "not least because it did nothing to advance her cause."

The interview may have caused a sensational splash, received as a scandalous airing of Diana's dirty laundry in its day, but now she'd be applauded for bravely sharing what no member of Britain's royal family had shared before.

The people's princess, indeed.

And it's obvious that her children, in trying to make their mother proud and further her legacy as a crusader for those who didn't have a voice, are grateful for everything she did manage to share while she was alive.

"What my mother believed in," Harry said on Mad World, "is if the fact that you are in a position of privilege or a position of responsibility and if you can put your name to something that you genuinely believe in…then you can smash any stigma you want."