Just over four years ago Prince Harry sat on a sofa in Kensington Palace and told me about the absolute chaos he had experienced emotionally after the death of his mother. Back then, there was a real sense of positivity in the air – not just for Harry, who had finally arrived in a good place and was in a new relationship with the woman he would go on to marry, but for the country as a whole, which was, at long last, having a national conversation about mental health. Optimism abounded. As Prince Harry would later tell me, he thought he was out of the woods. But as he now knows – as we all now know – you can never predict what is just around the corner. Mental health, like so many other elements of life, has no absolutes.
The work Harry has done on himself since – and the work he has done in understanding mental health more generally – is reflected in The Me You Can’t See, the documentary series he has been quietly working on with Oprah Winfrey and Apple TV+ for the past two years. The five-parter, which will premiere on the streaming service later this month, will put to bed any suggestions that the Duke of Sussex regrets the interview with Oprah that was aired in March. The entire series is based on a conversation between the two about mental health, the pair shepherding the way for experts and sufferers – including a few well known faces – to talk about some of the most misunderstood illnesses and conditions: schizophrenia, OCD, PTSD and the effects of unresolved trauma.
If one of the criticisms of the mental health movement has been an unwillingness to talk about these more complex conditions such as psychosis, then this series will be a ray of light for those who often feel ignored by the mainstream conversations that tend to focus on anxiety and depression (debilitating conditions, of course, but not the only debilitating conditions).
Both the Duke and Oprah know that star power can draw people to these subjects, and so there will be conversations with the likes of Lady Gaga, who has suffered PTSD, and Glenn Close, whose sister has bipolar disorder and whose nephew has schizoaffective disorder. But Prince Harry has been adamant that this is not simply a space for celebrity confessionals. They have also spent time speaking to people around the globe about their experiences, all of whom the Duke is fiercely protective of, knowing, as he does, how hard it can be to talk openly and in public about mental health issues.
The series has been co-directed by the four-time Bafta-winning Asif Kapadia (who has made films on Ayrton Senna, Diego Maradona and Amy Winehouse) and the Emmy award-nominated Dawn Porter. It has been created with the backing of an advisory panel of 14 mental health experts, including Alain de Botton and Sue Baker, the inspiring director of Time To Change, whose experiences of cancer and motherhood would make her worthy of an entire episode herself.
“Now more than ever, there is an immediate need to replace the shame surrounding mental health with wisdom, compassion and honesty,” said Winfrey of her new show. “Our series aims to spark that global conversation.”
“We are born into different lives, brought up in different environments, and as a result are exposed to different experiences,” said Prince Harry, as he announced the series at the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK. “But our shared experience is that we are all human. The majority of us carry some form of unresolved trauma, loss or grief, which feels – and is – very personal. Yet the past year has shown us that we are all in this together, and my hope is that this series will show there is power in vulnerability, connection in empathy and strength in honesty.”
There will, of course, always be people ready to criticise the Duke for this kind of language. But the majority of psychotherapists and mental health professionals, who have spoken of ‘trauma’ and ‘shared experiences’ for decades, will not be among them. This is the language of recovery; language that is spoken across the world by people who have battled everything from depression to eating disorders to their own and other people’s addictions. It is nothing new – what is new is that someone born into the traditionally tight-lipped Royal family should be speaking it. Everyone involved in the show hopes that it will give others the guidance, support and permission to start speaking the language too. For mental ill health is a universal problem, one that affects an estimated 792 million people across the world, with one in six working age adults in the UK reporting symptoms at any given time.
It is often suggested that the Duke’s wife, Meghan, has somehow changed him, as if he is a man completely incapable of independent thought. But those close to Harry know that he had long been open to the shift we now see in him. The blinkers that are attached by necessity when you are born into the Royal family had always been badly fitted on him, a little bit wonky. Once he witnessed the way his wife was treated with what he perceived to be unconscious bias, he could not ignore it. The Me You Can’t See, those close to him say, is a result of the Duke’s efforts to broaden his perspectives.
The Duke knows he has critics. He expects to have critics, given the very public stance he has made, not just about the media, but also his own family. He has accepted this, and it is this acceptance that has set him free, in many ways. He is no longer living in fear of the repercussions of existing as himself, as he wants and needs to be. He knows he has made mistakes – who among us hasn’t? – but he now sees that the most efficient way to live is truthfully, and not just by the expectations of others.
Just as our interview four years ago revealed so much about his mental health then, this new documentary series will tell us much about his mental health now. The anger of the past has gone, and it has been replaced with a sense of purpose. California is not just Harry’s physical home for now – it is also his spiritual one, where nobody thinks anything of openly discussing their struggles.
And the Prince Harry we can’t see is perhaps the one we don’t want to – the one who is getting on just fine, happily following his own path outside the conventions we are used to seeing him in. Hiking. Taking the dogs to the beach. Preparing for the imminent arrival of his daughter. Speaking his truth in the hope of helping those who are unable to, and not caring how cheesy anyone might think that sounds.
Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry will premiere The Me You Can’t See on May 21 on Apple TV+
Glenn Close and Lady Gaga: talking frankly
The high-profile guests discussing their experiences of mental illness in the latest on-screen collaboration between the Sussexes and interview queen Oprah Winfrey include pop star Lady Gaga and Oscar-nominated actress Glenn Close, as well as names less well known to most Brits, such as celebrity chef Rashad Armstead and basketball player DeMar DeRozan.
Lady Gaga, in particular, has made no secret of her past struggles with mental illness after surviving sexual assault. In 2018, she detailed how she underwent a “mental health crisis” and battled depression and PTSD after becoming overwhelmed by work commitments.
“I would see flashes of things I was tormented by,” she said, “experiences that were filed away in my brain with ‘I’ll deal with you later’ for many years because my brain was protecting me.”
She went on to explain that her struggles morphed into “physical chronic pain, fibromyalgia, panic attacks, acute trauma responses, and debilitating mental spirals that have included suicidal ideation and masochistic behaviour.”
Close, meanwhile, became an advocate for mental health after discovering that it ran in her family: her sister Jessie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 50, her nephew Calen has schizoaffective disorder and others have struggled with alcoholism and depression.
Close co-founded the non-profit organisation Bring Change to Mind in 2010, which aims to challenge stereotypes of mental illness, after Jessie confided in her about having suicidal thoughts. “Many people who live with bipolar disorder have deaths by suicide,” she said, and though she saw “evidence” of her sister’s mental distress growing up, her family “had no vocabulary” to discuss it – driving what she calls an urgent need to “start talking about it.”
By Alice Hall