How Prince Harry has turned his pain into a pathway to help others

Hannah Furness

It was the image that all-out broke the hearts of the nation: the small bewildered boy, just 12, walking behind his mother’s coffin as the world watched on.

With clenched fists and head bowed, the image of a stoic Prince Harry became the enduring memory from the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, moving onlookers to tears.

Only now, 20 years on, will those same onlookers come close to understanding the long-term effect the cataclysmic news of his mother’s death had on the boy prince, due to his own candid disclosures.

The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince William, Earl Spencer, Prince Harry and Prince Charles walk outside Westminster Abbey during the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales Credit:  EPA

The courage he showed on the cusp of his teenage years is mirrored today as he allows strangers a glimpse into his difficult past in an honest and wholehearted effort to help others suffering mental health issues.

His late mother once pledged to come running to anyone who found themselves in distress, calling it her destiny to help others less fortunate than herself. Her younger son, now 32, could not be following more closely in her footsteps.

He said: “What my mother believed in is if you are in a position of privilege or a position of responsibility and if you can put your name to something that you genuinely believe in … then you can smash any stigma you want.”

The stigma in question is mental health: a cause that Harry, along with his brother and sister-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, have made their flagship issue of the past year.

Having spoken passionately about the importance of conversation, the prince has many times implored others to speak about their worries, lest they fester and grow. But even as he campaigned, his relative (and understandable) silence on his own past has served only to leave a vacuum for speculation about what specifically had inspired him. Had he suffered trauma from active service in Afghanistan, some wondered, or was he struggling to define his role in his privileged but deeply unusual life?

Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge wear headbands for Heads Together, which is the main charity for the Virgin London Marathon this year Credit: PA

In fact, as we now know, it was his mother’s death which left Prince Harry in a state of emotional crisis waiting to happen, swallowing his feelings and determined not to confront the trauma that had riven his young life. Born in 1984, the younger son of Diana and the Prince of Wales quickly found a special place in the nation’s hearts. Many recall with fondness photographs of him pressing his tongue against a car window, giggling and soaked while riding a log flume, or learning to ski.

On Aug 31, 1997, Prince Harry and his brother William, 15, woke at Balmoral at 7.15am to learn that their mother had died. At the funeral, the Princes walked behind their mother’s coffin with the support of their father, grandfather and uncle, Earl Spencer.

The princes then attempted to return to normal life: William at Eton and Harry to Ludgrove.

His biographer, Penny Junor, later noted: “Whether by nature or nurture, both boys had even then that Windsor ability to keep their emotions in check.” Says Harry now: “I have spent most of my life saying ‘I’m fine’.”

In his twenties, he says, he made a valiant stab at pretending all was well, convincing himself “life is great” as he embarked on being an adult royal. As he describes it, there followed two years of “total chaos”.

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Any transgressions of his youth – an ill-judged fancy dress costume and intimate photographs taken at a private Las Vegas party – have largely faded from the public consciousness. In hindsight, and after years of public service, they have become part of his man-of-the-people persona: the high jinks of a well-meaning but careless twentysomething better suited to military banter than royal protocol.

But, with today’s interview, a more complicated picture emerges. “I, through a lot of my twenties, was a problem and I didn’t know how to deal with it,” he says. “I was a typical 20, 25, 28 year-old running around going ‘life is great’, or ‘life is fine’ … and then started to have a few conversations and actually all of a sudden all of this grief that I have never processed started to come to the forefront and I was like, there is actually a lot of stuff here that I need to deal with.”

Despite those difficulties, a stellar military career saw him find his feet at Sandhurst as Officer Cadet Wales, joining the Household Cavalry (Blues and Royals) as a second lieutenant and deployed secretly to Afghanistan for 10 weeks in Helmand Province.

In doing so, he became the first member of the Royal family to fight in a war since his uncle, the Duke of York, in the Falklands.

At the time, Prince Harry said: “It’s very nice to be sort of a normal person for once, I think it’s about as normal as I’m going to get.”

His active service and hands-on approach endeared him to colleagues, superiors and the public.

In 2012, after qualifying to fly an Apache helicopter, he returned to Afghanistan for a 20-week deployment, returning to London to throw himself into the Invictus Games in 2014.

Prince Harry sits in the front seat of the cockpit of his Apache helicopter at Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan, 2013 Credit: AP

A year later, after a decade with the Armed Forces, it was announced he would be leaving operational service with the rank of captain to concentrate on his charity work and duties for the Queen.

His time with the Army has left its mark, not least in the way he deals with adversity. He is a “massive believer” in humour, he said, adding: “If you sit down and talk to most of these guys about the issues that they have had, it’s all dark humour.

“I can safely say in Headley Court, when these guys go through their rehab, the idea of someone being stuck in bed and being late for breakfast because someone’s nicked both of their prosthetic legs is part of how you get through it for them.

“I’m not suggesting it’s how the rest of the general public do that, because it probably won’t work and I will get crucified for it, but in that specific experience that I’ve had, it works for those guys.”

Two years with the personnel recovery unit followed, where Prince Harry worked to improve the welfare of wounded, injured and sick servicemen and women, including those with serious mental health issues.

The job, he says, required him to park his own issues to listen to others. In just one day, he worked with a girl who had tried to commit suicide, a man suffering from such severe PTSD he could not speak, another who had to sleep with a rain sound effect to mask tinnitus caused by a grenade, and a group of terminally ill children.

Prince Harry at the University of Bath Sports Village Invictus Games UK team trials in Bath on Bath on Apr 7th of this year Credit: Rex Features

“All you want to do is help and listen but then you walk away going ‘hang on a second, how the hell am I supposed to process this?’” the Prince said.

As he took on more public royal engagements, he admits suffering a “flight or fight” reaction, explaining: “Being in situations when you’re at an engagement and not being able to do the flight bit, your body ends up kicking into the fight.”

In charity work, he has always seemed to find his calling. He became a high-profile champion for veterans, taking part in a Walking With the Wounded charity trek to the South Pole and helping to make Help for Heroes a global success.

Sentebale, founded with Prince Seeiso of Lesotho in memory of their mothers, has gone from strength to strength raising money for orphans and vulnerable children.

His Invictus Games has become a byword for achievement in adversity, giving new hope to those who have sacrificed their health for their country and enlisting the Obamas and the Queen herself in its promotion.

Prince Harry picks up and holds old friend Mutsu Potsane aged 6, in the grounds of the Mants'ase childrens home, while on a return visit to Lesotho in Southern Africa, Monday 24th April 2006. The Prince was in the country to launch his new charity called 'Sentebale', which means forget me not in memory of his mother Diana Princess of Wales Credit: ITV

“You know, for me, Invictus would have never got off the ground if I hadn’t dealt with all that stuff beforehand,” he concedes now.

Notably, he also embraced charities close to Diana’s own heart, picking up her mantle with campaigns against landmines and for HIV awareness as well as his own love of conservation and sport.

For years he has been praised for his natural way with children, employing his own juvenile side to win their confidence in all sorts of circumstances.

In Harry’s relationships, too, things seem to have settled. Past girlfriends had endured huge intrusion into their private lives after being photographed on the arm of the Prince. Those watching from afar empathised with a man who wore his heart on his sleeve, but could not replicate the success of his brother’s match with Catherine Middleton.

But the arrival of Meghan Markle, a 35-year-old American actress, has fired hopes for his personal happiness. A charity campaigner, yoga lover and – until recently – lifestyle blogger, Ms Markle is already well used to the spotlight and is committed to just the philanthropic causes Prince Harry admires.

Anyone who doubted the strength of feeling in the fledgling transatlantic relationship would have been reassured by a ferociously protective letter authorised by the Prince, railing against a “storm” of abuse and harassment.

He is, he says, in a “good place”. As he puts it: “I am a Prince, I have a house over my head and the security that I need. I have a car, I have a job that I absolutely love.

Prince Harry and his girlfriend Meghan Markle pictured at a friend's wedding near Miami, Florida Credit: 922

“Previous to that I had a second job that I absolutely loved as well. I now, because of the process I have been through over the past two and a half years, I’ve now been able to take my work seriously, been able to take my private life seriously as well and be able to put blood, sweat and tears into the things that really make a difference.”

His most recent project is Heads Together, the mental health campaign he has now given so much of himself to in order to make it a success. His efforts to overcome his own difficulties make his campaign all the more admirable and shed fresh light on the open-hearted, peaceful prince of today.

Not in living memory has a young royal appeared so at ease with himself and his role: a confident, charming, increasingly gracious man relaxed in the knowledge that the public is on his side.

At engagements, he appears more and more assured in invoking his mother’s name to boost the profile of causes close to her and his heart. At a recent landmine event he astonished an audience with an emotional speech laced with references to Diana, speaking directly of her “untimely death” in a plea to continue the legacy of her final campaign.

Against the odds of his birth, Prince Harry has shown the talent for making people feel he is one of them: an incalculable asset to the Royal family.

He is their best hope in convincing men from all walks of life of his key message: talk.

Now he has so emphatically led by example, the success of Heads Together and future of the Royal family both seem in very safe hands.  

Heads Together

 

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