A royal tête-à-tête for mental health

Monday, October 17th, 2016

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Every year, one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind. Like many friends, I know how it feels to have been enmeshed, at times, in the grey web of mixed anxiety and depression – the most common disorder, according to the Mental Health Foundation. But do we talk about it or ask for help? Sadly, we are more likely to try to hide our feelings in some dark internal cupboard and suffer silent pain because, unlike a physical illness, we think there is shame attached to a poorly mind

It was to combat this self-defeating attitude that, in May this year, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry launched Heads Together (headstogether.org.uk), their personal campaign to end the stigma around mental health. The campaign has partnered with several specialist charities (see box, right) to help people admit that they – or their family members – are struggling, and point them to practical expert help. ‘[We] want to get people talking about mental health. The more normal the topic becomes, the more we feel able to open up and seek support,’ explains the duke.

In September, I followed the duke and duchess when they visited YoungMinds (youngminds.org.uk), one of the partner charities which specialises in young people’s mental health, to learn about its free Parents’ Helpline (0808-802 5544). Problems are now emerging at an increasingly young age, as we learned from Melanie’s callabout her six-year-old daughter.

Ten per cent of five-to-16-year-olds have a diagnosable emotional or mental health problem. But many parents are reluctant to call a helpline because of fear about what might happen. ‘It’s normal to face worries when you have young children,’ says the duchess. ‘William and I would not hesitate to seek help for our children if they needed it.’

True to their aim, the royal founders are talking about their own vulnerabilities. In July, Prince Harry admitted on camera to widower and father-of-three Rio Ferdinand that he ‘really regrets’ not talking about losing his mother until three years ago.

As an air ambulance pilot, the duke sees first-hand the worst-case scenario. About a quarter of his call-outs are forsuicides or attempted suicides. As he listened in to calls at YoungMinds, he told us it had been a tough week as there were ‘too many sad families with the air ambulance’. He admitted to feeling affected by the strain: ‘If I have tolisten to a hard call [now], I’ll be in floods of tears.’

Endearingly, the duchess had no hesitation in putting a comforting arm round her husband. Sometimes words are not the only help.

Heads Together charities

Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families (annafreud.org).

Best Beginnings (bestbeginnings.org.uk) – help for mothers and babies.

Calm (thecalmzone.net, 0800-585 858) – dedicated to preventing male suicide.

Contact (contactarmedforces.org.uk) – support for service personnel and their families.

Mind (mind.org.uk, 0300-123 3393) – support for anyone with a mental health problem.

Place2Be (place2be.org.uk) – in-school support for children.

The Mix (themix.org.uk, 0808-808 4994) – multi-issue support for under-25s

How Young Minds helped a young worrier and her mother…

Melanie* called YoungMinds (YM) because her daughter, aged six, had developed generalised anxiety disorder after her father’s cancer treatment. She had a phobia about being sick and often refused to eat. Melanie felt confused, anxious and guilty. Also, she was frustrated that nothing she tried changed her daughter’s behaviour, and angry that no health professional offered help. After a trained volunteer listened to the details, she arranged a call back from a YM mental health specialist, who suggested her daughter’s anxiety stemmed from worry that her father might die, and also that she wanted the one-on-one attention she saw him receive from her mother. Together they worked out strategies including a worry box, where the little girl could put written worries during a set time each day.