I’ve noticed a slight shift in the way we’re talking about a vital issue, recently – the issue of male mental health and wellbeing.
Broadcaster James O’Brien wrote yesterday about spending years full of “public school swagger” until he had two sessions of therapy and left, tears streaming, having decided to rebuild his life.
So, too, to Prince Harry. I listened to his appearance on the American podcast Armchair Expert, and am left convinced of one thing: Harry can be an important part of the conversation about male mental health.
It’s rare to hear young men talking openly and frankly about how they’ve suffered, or are suffering – and it’s exactly what is needed to tackle some of our biggest social crises: male suicide, which hit a two-decade high in 2019 in England and Wales; depression and toxic masculinity. Hearing someone like Prince Harry discuss the ways in which empathy, compassion, self-awareness (and therapy) have helped him deal with his emotions is a breath of fresh air.
After all, it’s been tough year for Harry: the Oprah interview with his pregnant wife, Meghan Markle, subjected the couple to new levels of scrutiny, criticism and trolling; combined with the announcement that Harry is stepping back from his royal family duties. He also lost his beloved grandfather, Prince Philip.
It’s hard for all of us to shrug off online hate and viciousness; whether or not we are in the public eye. I once saw the comments section on a piece I’d written about feminism descend into a discussion amongst the men who were using it as to whether or not I was attractive enough to take to bed. The comments were obviously moderated when I flagged them up, but it still hurt. Yet Harry doesn’t seem to have allowed online hate to make him bitter. He’s fighting it with compassion, instead.
“Hatred is a form of projection – we’re not born to hate people,” he told podcast host Dax Shepard. “It manifests itself over a period of time and it comes from a place of unresolved pain– ultimately, there’s a source for it. There’s a reason you want to hate somebody else. When it comes to trolling on social media I take a moment to look at it and say, okay, this is how it’s making me feel, but I flip it and say, okay, how’s your day going? What happened to you? And actually have some compassion for them. Which is hard when you’re on the receiving end of some vile, toxic abuse; but I try and think, what’s your goal? What made you come at me?”
I also found myself nodding along in agreement with what he had to say about the kind of childhood traumas that stay with us all; his “go to” memories from the adults around him, who arguably didn’t know how to handle a young prince who’d lost his mother. “You need help”, he explained, was the phrase people used when they didn’t know how to respond to his pain; a phrase which could be easily be read as condemnation.
Telling someone they “need help”, he said, makes you feel as though you are “unwell” – and it does the opposite of what is needed. “Rule number one is, when you feel as though someone needs help, don’t tell them that to their face,” he said. “Telling someone they need help is more likely to make them say, “no I don’t” and delay and run away – or go and drink or take drugs or whatever. Whoever we are, wherever we come from, we always try and find some way to mask the actual feeling and to try and make ourselves feel differently. That was a huge part to the beginning of my life – I said there was nothing wrong with me and I was fine.”
Harry also referred to the way people act out sometimes because they constantly feel they’re “chasing something” – that there’s a reason for taking “a s***load of drugs and partying hard”. “I certainly didn’t have the awareness when I was going wild,” he said. “In the moment, it was like, “why not? I’m in my twenties, I’m having fun”.” But he believes that the key to healing is self-awareness – and is crucial to avoid burnout.
“You have to listen to your body, otherwise you’ve just got your head in the sand,” he said. “Cortisol and adrenaline is giving you extra energy, it feels like fuel – but that’s when burnout happens. You know it isn’t normal, but you ignore it because you can get s*** done. Then eventually it hits you, because fight or flight is not sustainable.
“To me it’s always so fascinating to hear of someone’s struggles and for them to be able to explain or articulate why, but then also tracing it back to what happened to you – not what’s wrong with you.”
What a key message: we are all suffering, and we’ve all had traumas and experiences that can sometimes lead us to act in ways we wouldn’t normally choose. In my opinion, Harry’s nailed it. And he may be privileged, but at least he owns it. “In certain corners of the media it’s like, “you’re privileged, how on earth could you be suffering”, he said. “But I’ve used my privilege to spend many years travelling around the world and seeing how other people suffer – that was the education I had. Everywhere I go I ask questions.”
Harry also talked about something we might all find relatable – that of feeling trapped in the confines of a job, lifestyle or (in his case) birthright. He spoke of having to “grin and bear it” and “get on with it” in his early twenties; travelling the Commonwealth and plastering a smile on his face, when he was desperate to get out of his royal role.
He described how he felt in his early twenties, knowing he didn’t want the job – and didn’t want to be there. “Look what it did to my mum. How am I ever going to settle down and have a wife and family when I know that it’s going to happen again? I’ve seen behind the curtain; I’ve seen the business model, I know how this operation runs and how it works. And then when I started doing therapy, it was like the bubble was burst. I plucked my head out of the sand, gave it a good shake off and was like, okay, you’re in this position of privilege, stop complaining – because you can’t get out. So, how are you going to make your mum proud and do things differently? Helping other people helped me.”
If there’s one thing Harry has to say – and millions of young men need to hear – it’s that it’s okay not to be okay. That sometimes, owning your problems (rather than masking them with drink, drugs and wild partying) is the key to healing. That going to therapy can be good for you. And that it’s good to talk: to your friends, to your family – even to a podcast.