Royals launch campaign to get Britons talking about mental health

Robert Booth
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry help organise the Heads Together charity from Kensington Palace. Photograph: The Royal Foundation/PA

Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have enlisted a rapper, a Royal Marine and a Labour spin doctor to try to push stigma about discussing mental health beyond what they believe is a “tipping point” and into public acceptability.

The royals are trying to use their high profile to convince the public that “shattering stigma on mental health starts with simple conversations”. The rapper Stephen Manderson, known as Professor Green, and the comedian Ruby Wax have joined other public figures and individuals who have suffered mental illness to make short films for their mental health campaign, Heads Together, and talk openly about their experiences of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

“Attitudes to mental health are at a tipping point,” the royals said in a joint statement. “We hope these films show people how simple conversations can change the direction of an entire life.”

In the clips Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former director of communications in Downing Street, discusses his depression and breakdowns with his wife, Fiona Millar, including recalling how he got so low he punched himself in the face repeatedly. In another encounter the former England cricket captain Andrew Flintoff told Manderson: “The hardest thing for me initially was talking. I’m not a big talker. I’m from the north of England. I’m from a working-class family. We don’t talk about our feelings.”

“It was no different for me growing up in a council estate in east London,” replied the rapper. “It is just not something you spoke about.”

The royals also released the largest ever survey of public attitudes to mental health, conducted by YouGov, which found almost half the population had a conversation about mental health in the last three months. Women are more likely to talk about the issue than men and young adults are almost twice as likely to discuss it than people aged over 65.

However, very few of the 5,000 surveyed – just 3% – said they had approached someone from a local support organisation, and a similar amount, 2%, spoke to someone in the human resources department at work about the issue, despite almost 12m working days being lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2015-16.

Heads Together is a coalition of eight mental health charities, including Mind and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), organised from Kensington Palace. Prince Harry is championing the issue after fellow servicemen suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and following his time volunteering in the army’s personnel recovery units. Prince William is understood to have been motivated after attending several suicides as an air ambulance pilot, and the Duchess of Cambridge is said to be interested in how mental health affects family life.

By campaigning for people to help each other by talking more, the royals hope to avoid a more politicised issue: claims that funding for NHS mental health services is being effectively cut. Last November an analysis by the King’s Fund thinktank showed 40% of mental health trusts saw their income fall in 2015-16. This was despite the government’s commitment to parity of esteem for mental health and assurances from NHS England that almost 90 per cent of plans submitted by clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) last year included mental health funding increases.

Heads Together will be the London Marathon’s lead charity this year, and the former England footballer Rio Ferdinand and the comedian Stephen Fry have also recorded testimonies set to be released next month.

People from other professions have also contributed. Phil Eaglesham, a Royal Marine who completed tours of Afghanistan and Iraq, is filmed talking with his wife, Julie, about how his struggle with a debilitating illness resulted in him trying to take his own life, although he told no one.

“I was ashamed,” he said. “There’s a stigma around mental health and how that was perceived and at that point I felt I was weak.”

When he finally did speak out, “things improved and I got help”.

“There is no way out without talking,” he said.

The TV journalist and newscaster Mark Austin discusses with his daughter Maddy how he handled her anorexia.

“I couldn’t even come to terms with how to stop it or how to help you,” he told her. “It was like you were determined to kill yourself. I remember at one stage saying if you want to go ahead and starve yourself to death, you go ahead. I obviously didn’t mean it but I was so helpless.”

In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Hotlines in other countries can be found here

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