Prince Harry spoke over the weekend about the emotional cost of suppressing his grief over his mother’s death when he was 12 years old. Prince William followed up by saying that his work as an air ambulance pilot made him aware of the large number of people, mainly men, who attempt suicide. The two of them, along with the Duchess of Cambridge, have launched an awareness campaign that aims to highlight the dearth of good mental health provision in Britain.
For some, all this means is that – disappointingly – the royals have joined the “snowflake generation” of young people who are simply too sensitive to little things like “feelings”. For others, including myself, their Heads Together initiative is admirable, not least because in itself it calls attention to the ludicrously basic level at which the building of “awareness” needs to begin.
Imagine how weird it would be if this trio were sticking their necks out to raise awareness of physical health, pointing out that you don’t just carry on, yelling that it’s only a flesh wound if you’ve made a gash in your hand. Clean it, at the very least. Put on a plaster. If it won’t stop bleeding, see a doctor. These are things everyone is nowadays expected to know. Yet, not so long ago, humans had no understanding at all of the implications of leaving a physical wound untreated.
We’re not far beyond that point with “mental health”. For a start, this is a huge, catch-all term. In Harry’s case, normal emotional distress was left untreated, and festered into something more serious. And yet … expressing his distress? Having it addressed? That, in some people’s eyes, would have made Harry a snowflake. This dangerous attitude is particularly fostered in men and boys. It’s not masculine to show your emotions – though they tend to show in other ways, in anger, aggression, self-harm or depression. I daresay that in at least some of the cases to which William refers, men bottled up their distress until it became overwhelming.
Very often a “mental health problem” starts out as mere emotional distress, a natural, healthy part of life. It’s when that distress isn’t sensibly addressed that it can grow into something that can be labelled a problem. Simply being aware of one’s emotions is the first step towards regulating them. Telling a whole generation that they’re “snowflakes” for having such awareness is actually an awful thing to do.
Which is not to say that every manifestation of emotional distress should be indulged or validated. That, I think, is what makes people talk of “emotional incontinence”. There’s a tendency among some to start believing that if a view or opinion upsets them then it is wrong. On the contrary, that’s usually a sign that the distressed person has difficulty handling conflict. What’s really going on with the “snowflake generation” is that people are becoming more aware of their feelings and needs, but don’t have the knowledge or experience to understand what those reactions are telling them about themselves.
In January this year, Theresa May announced that schoolchildren will be given greater access to NHS mental health workers. She has also praised Prince Harry for helping to “smash the stigma” around mental health and reassuring people that they are “not alone”. (She’s also called a snap general election, of course, which isn’t going to help anyone’s mental health.)
But this too is evidence of the crudity of our thinking. What is actually needed is far more sophisticated emotional awareness, so that people can recognise and manage their own emotions and, just as importantly, interactions with others who may have unhealthy or abusive emotional agendas themselves.
The good news is that all this is not actually as difficult or complex as it may appear. Emotional awareness could easily be taught in schools. It should be seen as just as necessary as PE. Already people are doing amazing and cost-effective work that can have a huge impact in helping people understand and care for themselves and those around them. Last week, for instance, I took part in a conflict workshop run by youth charity Leap. Around 20 adults who had never met before became fairly emotionally intimate with each other over just a couple of hours.
Emotional awareness should be taught in schools, and seen as just as necessary as PE
Some declared they’d achieved insights that they were going to apply within their marriages. Someone who’d worked for years with the most troubled young people announced she was “blown away”. Yet the room was full of people who didn’t even know that conflict was a problem in their lives.
And that’s the thing. People soldier on, unaware they have a problem. Worse, that problem becomes familiar; it feels safe, even comfortable, because it’s what they know. It’s why people make the same mistakes again and again, abusing others or allowing themselves to be abused without even knowing this behaviour isn’t “normal”.
There’s a tendency to see the “snowflake generation” as narcissistic, demanding constant attention and validation, wrapped up in their own needs and unaware of those of others, refusing to take responsibility for their choices or mistakes, playing the victim. Yet these critics are themselves being typically narcissistic in denying that the youngsters they berate have any right to their own feelings and perceptions, let alone might need or deserve some help in untangling them.
If anything, I believe, this generation is suffering because generations before it were as narcissistic as any that ever lived. If you think that’s far-fetched, take a look at Donald Trump, elected King of the Baby Boomers.
Talking of kings, there’s not a lot that’s more narcissistic than the concept of monarchy. When the youth of that institution say there’s a problem, then you really, really know there is. And that it’s a big one.