The Millennial Royals, while often seen, are rarely heard from. The telegenic trio of William, Kate and Harry may gamely wave, plant trees and run for charity but giving long, freewheeling interviews is not the Windsor family’s M.O. Which is why Prince Harry’s recent intimate chat on the British podcast Mad World was so unexpected and its subject matter — his struggles with grief, anger and anxiety — so unprecedented.
Harry told host Bryony Gordon that after losing his mother when he was 12, he “shut down all of his emotions” for nearly 20 years, resulting in a crisis in his late 20s. (You may recall that before Harry was hanging with Michelle Obama and defending his girlfriend Meghan Markle from racist and sexist trolls, he was pretty much your basic hard-partying, bro-y, entitled white boy.)
What followed was two years of “total chaos,” he said, in which he experienced a panicky, fight-or-flight reaction during public appearances, so much so that he took up boxing to channel his impulse to punch people. He also sought professional counselling to address his suppressed feelings of loss. As the 20th anniversary of his mother’s death approaches, Harry told Gordon that he wants to “smash the stigma” of mental illness.
But in talking so candidly and plainly about his own experience — he admitted, off the top, that he was “a little bit nervous, a little bit tight in the chest” — Harry’s greatest service wasn’t speaking out as a prince, but rather in speaking out as a man.
He didn’t acknowledge gender directly in the podcast, but he did allude to social forces that will sound familiar to many men: the demands of “duty,” the expectations of his family, the cultural imperative to have a stiff upper lip and the shaming that makes opening up to others seem “uncool.”
And he also gave a separate interview to CALMzine, a publication put out by the UK men’s suicide prevention charity Campaign Against Living Miserably. In it, he said, “We will all go through tough times in our lives, but men especially feel the need to pretend that everything is OK, and that admitting this to their friends will make them appear weak. I can assure you this is actually a sign of strength.”
Harry’s brother William also spoke to CALMzine, saying that he learned about men’s difficulties talking about mental illness from his work with as an air ambulance pilot. His first call was to a male suicide victim. (CALM points out on its website that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.)
One of feminism’s big victories was the creation of women-centred health care — reproductive and psychological services (everything from breast cancer support groups to abortion clinics to rape crisis centres) that are sensitive to women’s specific needs and experiences.
Men, on the other hand, have been reluctant to advocate for themselves on this front. Admitting to feeling pain, being vulnerable and asking for help goes against the rules of traditional masculinity. Boys who are told not to cry, become men who can’t talk about their emotions, and who won’t seek support when they need it.
There’s a great deal of science to back this up. In 2016, researchers from Indiana University Bloomington reviewed multiple studies on men and mental health involving close to 20,000 people. They found that men who most conformed to traditionally manly traits like self-reliance, emotional control, dominance, risk-taking and power over women were more likely to have psychological troubles and were also less apt to seek help for them.
Harry’s interview is cause for hope, though. He’s one of a growing number of men bringing attention to the issue. The Movember Foundation, for instance, which started out as a fundraiser for prostate cancer, has expanded its focus to men’s emotional and psychological health research and treatment.
Unequivocally macho guys have begun to speak openly about the mental distress that’s come about because of their work: Football and hockey players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeated head injuries suffer from serious psychiatric problems, like memory loss, dementia, mood disorders and suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Post-traumatic stress disorder is common among soldiers and first responders resulting in issues like anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
And these conditions don’t just affect the immediate sufferers. All too often, men’s struggles with mental illness and trauma dovetail with violent behaviour, towards themselves and others. Both CTE and PTSD have been linked to aggression and domestic abuse. Earlier this year, Canadian Forces veteran Lionel Desmond shot and killed his wife, mother, daughter and himself at their home in Nova Scotia. He had been struggling with symptoms of trauma, as well as a head injury, since he returned home from a tour in Afghanistan in 2007. (To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that all mentally ill people are a threat. In fact, research shows they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.)
When men get the help they need, not just treatment but encouragement in overcoming tough-guy stereotypes, they aren’t the only ones who benefit. They become stronger and more capable friends, partners and parents. They also become better campaigners for the well-being of other men and boys.
One of the reasons Prince Harry became involved in this cause was his work with fellow veterans. Although he says he doesn’t suffer himself from PTSD after his own service in Afghanistan, he’s witnessed the war’s affect on other lads, as he calls them. Men whose invisible injuries and scars are still often overlooked and not talked about nearly enough.
“Conversation has to be the beginning,” Harry said in the podcast. “If you stay silent, it’s more likely to kill you.” And it’s admirable that Harry — an erstwhile bad boy, a former soldier, the embodiment of a certain kind stoic masculinity — has broken his own silence with the aim of helping others. As a British veteran with PTSD explained to the press, “Speaking about war used to be a taboo and Harry is changing that. He is definitely a torch in the darkness.”
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