Harry (left) talking to an injured soldier at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, US; 15 May 2013
By Military Health - https://www.flickr.com/photos/militaryhealth/8739133066/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26100522
Harry (left) talking to an injured soldier at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, US; 15 May 2013

The last couple of years, the need for a robust mental health awareness has been not just a necessity but has brought about a turn in how the society in general sees and responds to mental health issues. Although many of the results we have seen around mental health awareness may be attributed to the willingness of a lot individuals stepping up to open up on their own experiences, helping reduce the stigma that was once associated with the issue. However, when celebrities, renowned leaders and mostly the Royal Family men become open to discussing their own mental health experience in public, it instantly becomes a game changer.

Psychotherapist Noel McDermott looks at how our male royal family members are helping men worldwide to open up about their mental and emotional health. With the ascension of Charles to the throne and his attendance to his sons at Elizabeth’s funeral, issues around their mental health became present again. With this family and these men in particular, both William and Harry have opened up to the struggles they have had, talking openly about their experience of PTSD. This open conversation in many ways was unthinkable in the past and yet this family have played out the revolution we have seen in terms of insight into psychological knowledge and processing that has happened in society at large and have helped facilitate that revolution.

Noel notes that, “This family were very tight lipped historically about their ‘private’ affairs and in many ways still are, Charles and his mother come from a generation that prided themselves on putting aside personal needs for public good, as men culturally they are trained to withhold around psychological distress, they all went through education systems (residential/collective childcare) that are known to make kids more reserved about their internal worlds as success was seen in terms of attainment in exams etc.” 

Changes in Family Life

The war generation has almost all died out now and many of the attitudes embodied by Charles and Elizabeth are from that time and they have had to adapt. Charles in particular has had to learn from his sons who have been much more open to psychological insight. Many families after WWII lived with the psychological damage done to those that fought and did so out of a sense of duty. It was also the case that mental health services for those veterans did not exist. Work around trauma massively leapt forward as a result of the war and it is due to this work that terrible terms such as cowardice were removed from men who had been psychologically broken by the horrors of war. It goes without saying that those suffering from PTSD were mostly men and there is a cogent argument for understanding poor mental health and substance misuse issues for several generations of men linked to this. Post WWII saw a very significant and sustained increase in divorce as families found they could not deal with the severity of the mental health needs of the returning veterans which often involved alcohol abuse and violence. So, whilst there was a concept of the stiff upper lip and service and avoidance of ‘washing your laundry in public’ in actuality what was happening was a seismic shift in attitudes to acceptable behaviour in marriage and roles in the family.

Opening up the conversation

Men are still given messages that they need to be strong and not talk about feelings but much less with each passing generation. This is in some ways exemplified by William and Harry who have discussed their struggles openly. Harry is very honest about the developmental trauma he experienced because of the death of his mother leading to him having flashbacks and panic attacks when he comes back to the UK and his need to have EMDR sessions to help. William has discussed how he developed trauma functioning from his time as a search and rescue pilot in the RAF and in particular how the birth of his first child forced him to seek help with it. This is the link back to the seismic shifts in family functioning from WWII to date as it’s just not okay any more for a guy to expect his mental health issues to be smoothed over by his wife and kids, that they will be held hostage to his needs. Men who have children and partners now have to deal with their psychology and given we have the services that can deal with these needs it’s a perfectly reasonable demand.

Mental health education

Education has radically and fundamentally changed in the UK around mental health and child welfare in general. Schools have not for a long time now only been places where exams are the only metric. This is also true of the independent schools’ sector including residential schools. Child welfare is now a clear legal obligation and over the past 10 years mental health services are increasingly being targeted directly at schools. This approach was pioneered by charities such as place2be and Kids Co but has been mainstreamed by the governments development of mental health support teams in schools rather than the old system of referral to a child and adolescent mental health service based in a local hospital trust. The highly psychologically damaged adult excelling in public life or in business who was a child of a pretty brutal education system is no longer acceptable and in fact schools who operate in that model can and do face prosecution. 

Modelling Healthier Ways of Male Being

King Charles himself faced significant criticism at the time for choosing a partner who made him happy after Diana. This clearly marked a change in culture in that family and reflected and also facilitated a change in society that psychological needs and emotional needs are just as important as doing one’s duty. Charles has signalled he will make the monarchy more open and inclusive and so far, his life to date indicates that will happen. His sons are both very admirable men in so many ways and they continue to grow and model healthier ways of being for all men. One has to assume their dad had a hand in their growth, one also has to assume dad has had to learn from his sons!

Men and psychological support

Men have traditionally taken an ‘all your eggs in one basket’ approach to psychological support, in fact men have shied away from any hint or suggestion that the activities that provide support (spending time with your mates at work or play) is in fact psychological or supportive. As men go through these life transitions it is important, they make time to normalise feelings and emotions and reach out to friends and loved ones for support.  Without a doubt the best therapy in life is the company and support of other humans that we care about and who care about us. The herd is where we feel safe and where we get most boosts from in terms of our health and wellbeing. Simply being in the company of people we like when we are troubled will reduce our stress responses to our troubles. For men this is often the best approach, activity-based support often works better for men and often guys will open up to each other during these contacts normalising the changes they are going through.

psychotherapist Noel McDermott

Noel McDermott is a Psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care, and education. He has created unique, mental health services in the independent sector. Noel’s company offer at-home mental health care and will source, identify and co-ordinate personalised care teams for the individual – www.noelcdermott.net.