I’ve noticed a slight shift in the way we talk about a vital issue recently – the issue of men’s mental health and well-being.
Broadcaster James O’Brien wrote yesterday about spending years full of ‘public school bluster’ until he had two therapy sessions and left, tears streaming down, having decided to rebuild his life.
The same goes for Prince Harry. I listened to his appearance on the American Armchair Expert podcast, and I’m convinced of one thing: Harry can be an important part of the conversation about male mental health.
It is rare to hear young men speak openly and candidly about how they have suffered or are suffering – and this is exactly what we need to deal with some of our greatest social crises: male suicide, which reached a two-decade high in 2019 in England. and Wales; depression and toxic masculinity. Hearing someone like Prince Harry discuss how empathy, compassion, self-awareness (and therapy) helped him deal with his emotions is a breath of fresh air.
After all, it has been a difficult year for Harry: Oprah’s 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 down from his role with the Royal Family. He also lost his beloved grandfather, Prince Philip.
It’s hard for all of us to ignore hate and meanness online; whether or not we are in the public eye. I once saw the comments section on an article I wrote on feminism descend into a discussion between men who were using it about whether or not I was attractive enough to go to bed. Comments were obviously moderate when I posted them, but it still hurt. Still, Harry doesn’t seem to have let the hate online make him bitter. He fights it with compassion, instead.
“Hate is a form of projection – we were not born to hate people,” he told podcast host Dax Shepard. “It manifests over a period of time and it comes from a place of unresolved pain – ultimately, there is a source for it. There’s a reason you want to hate someone else. When it comes to hanging out on social media, I take a moment to look at it and say, okay this is how I feel, but I flip it over and say, okay, how’s it going your day? What happened to you? And have real compassion for them. Which is difficult when you are the victim of vile and toxic abuse; but I’m trying to think, what’s your goal? What made you come to me?
I also found myself nodding in agreement with what he had to say about the kind of childhood trauma that goes with all of us; his “go to” memories of the adults around him, who probably didn’t know how to deal with a young prince who had lost his mother. “You need help,” he explained, was the expression people used when they didn’t know how to react to his pain; a phrase that could easily be interpreted as a condemnation.
Harry also touched on the way people act sometimes because they constantly have the feeling that they are ‘chasing something’ – that there is a reason to ‘take some fucking drugs and party’. “I certainly didn’t have a conscience when I was going crazy,” he said. “At the time, it was like, ‘Why not? I’m in my twenties, I’m having fun ”.” But he believes the key to healing is self-awareness – and is key to avoiding burnout.
“You have to listen to your body, otherwise you just have your head in the sand,” he says. “Cortisol and adrenaline give you extra energy, it sounds like fuel – but that’s where burnout happens. You know it’s not normal, but you ignore it because you can do shit. Eventually, it hits you, because the fight or flight is not lasting.
“For me, it’s always so fascinating to hear about someone’s struggles and to be able to explain or articulate why, but also to go back to what happened to you – not what’s wrong with you.
What a key message: we all suffer and we have all had traumas and experiences that can sometimes cause us to act in ways we would not normally choose. In my opinion, Harry succeeded. And he might be privileged, but at least he owns it. “In some corners of the media it’s like, ‘You are privileged, how the hell could you suffer,’ he said. “But I used my privilege to spend many years traveling the world and seeing how others are hurting – this was the education I had. Everywhere I go, I ask questions.
Harry also spoke about something we might all find relatable – that of feeling trapped within the confines of a job, a lifestyle, or (in his case) a birthright. He spoke of having to “smile and endure” and “keep going” in his early twenties; roaming the Commonwealth and putting a smile on his face, as he was desperate to step out of his royal role.
He described how he felt in his early twenties, knowing he didn’t want a job – and he didn’t want to be there. “Look what it did to my mom. How am I going to settle down and have a wife and a family when I know it’s going to happen again? I saw behind the curtain; I have seen the business model, I know how this operation works and how it works. And then when I started doing therapy, it was like the bubble had burst. I ripped my head off the sand, gave it a good shake and thought, okay, you’re in this position of privilege, stop complaining – because you can’t get out. So how are you going to make your mom proud and do things differently? Helping others has helped me.
If there’s one thing Harry has to say – and millions of young men need to hear – it’s okay if you’re not well. That sometimes taking ownership of your problems (rather than masking them with drink, drugs, and wild parties) is the key to healing. Getting into therapy can be good for you. And that it’s good to talk: to your friends, to your family – even to a podcast.