Along with everyone else, I have to admire Prince Harry for opening up about the impact that his mother's sudden and tragic death had on him, but I fear that his talk about mental-health issues and trauma will have a negative rather than a positive impact on our views of mental illness.
Prince Harry revealed he sought counselling after two years of 'total chaos' having spent nearly 20 years of 'not thinking' about the death of his mother. (Photo: PA Wire/PA Images)
Losing a parent at an early age is traumatic and I can fully understand what he went through, as I lost my own father when I was but 10 years old. Like Prince Harry, it had a profound effect on me that lasted for years. No breakdown, but to this day I still harbour hostility to a certain hospital in Toronto. When I tried to visit my father after he suffered a heart attack, I was thrown out because visitors had to be over 16. I was forced to stand on the median strip of University Avenue to try to spot him waving to me from his window.
And while losing a parent in the public eye as a royal with the Queen for your grandmother may be doubly difficult, it is just as difficult when your family is poor, your mom has to go work as a school crossing guard and you become a sales clerk in the local Kresge store. I prepared supper every night from an early age.
Many children lose parents early, and that is always tragic, but it does not result in a mental illness. I differentiate mental-health issues from mental illness. I'm not sure if those who read and/or heard of Harry's issues make that differentiation, but it is an important one. It is like saying I have stomach issues because of heartburn versus having stomach cancer.
Hamilton psychiatrist David Laing Dawson wrote not too long ago that he had an issue with the word "issue." He pointed out that the dictionary definition is "an important topic or problem for debate or discussion" -- the operative portion of that definition being "for debate or discussion." He said that euphemisms like "'mental-health issues' often creep into our vocabulary to hide the truth, or to reduce the sting of truth." And that "by calling mental illness an 'issue' we are placating the deniers of mental illness and we are reducing it to an abstraction, a topic for discussion and debate, rather than a reality in our midst."
Mental illness -- and by that I mean conditions like severe depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia -- are very painful realities. Prince Harry does not talk about them. He only talks of distress and his childhood trauma, and so he is not helping to demystify those real and painful conditions. In fact, by simply talking about his "issue" and the trauma of his childhood, he is helping those who deny the existence of true mental illness as being anything other than the result of childhood trauma. That does not help, but it may be a start if he goes on from that.
What he now needs to do, if he is to be effective, is to embrace the mental illnesses that do cause so much distress and are independent of loss of parent but are simply the luck (or bad luck) of the draw. Mental illnesses that can and do strike people of all classes and ethnicities are no-fault maladies that deserve our compassion, understanding and proper treatment.
Prince Harry, son of the late Princess Diana, leaves the Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of Diana at the Guards' Chapel at Wellington Barracks in London, Aug. 31, 2007. (Photo: Luke MacGregor/Reuters)
U.S. advocate, DJ Jaffe writing in The Hill has no doubts that celebrities like Prince Harry "are speaking out for all the right reasons." "None (of them)have schizophrenia, perhaps the most devastating disorder, nor severe bipolar that is resistant to treatment. That is where we should be focusing our policies." Writer Brendan O'Neill considers celebrities like the Prince talking about mental health to be examples of the transformation of mental illness into a fashion accessory.
Prince Harry and William want to shatter the stigma around mental health, but there is no stigma since so many people already talk about their supposed mental health issues like normal stress, grief and so on. It has become fashionable. All this mental-health issues talk simply "distracts the attention of doctors away from those who are genuinely in need: the clinically depressed, the schizophrenic, the suicidal." Those sufferers tend to get ignored and what many believe is stigma is downright discrimination in that the sickest of the sick do not get the services they need from society like hospital beds, proper medical care, community supports and so on. That is the real tragedy that we continually ignore.
Now that you've started, Harry, it is time to push on and do more. You should be pointing out that those with mental illness often go untreated or inadequately treated, as I've pointed out here numerous times, and that they are often homeless or incarcerated and live in poverty. If you were to do that, you would be doing a great service.
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