Why Prince Harry speaking up about his grief therapy is hugely important for men and mental health

Stiff upper lip no longer a marker of masculine virtue, and it’s about time
(Source: Instagram/@bryonygordon)

Keeping a stiff upper lip isn't just a hallmark of British valour, it's something of a masculine ideal we recognize in this part of the Commonwealth as well. Restraining emotion is "manly" and taking it all in stride is rewarded. Well-meaning pep talks of the "boys don't cry" or "take it like a man" variety have been part of our collective script for decades (even millennia) even though stifling painful feelings is toxic, for everyone. Slowly, the script is changing. High profile men and women are getting vocal about mental health and it's about time. We can now add His Royal Highness, Prince Henry of Wales to those voices, and the addition is welcome.

Recently, Prince Harry told Byrony Gordon, host of The Telegraph's new Mad World podcast, how he finally sought professional counseling to manage feelings of grief he hadn't processed after losing his mother, Princess Diana at age 12. Though his brother, Prince William, had urged him to get help, he'd effectively checked out emotionally for the better part of two decades. "I can safely say that losing my mum at the age of 12, and therefore shutting down all of my emotions for the last 20 years, has had a quite serious effect on not only my personal life but my work as well". The loss of a parent as a pre-adolescent is significant, still Harry tried in vain to bypass bereavement.

"My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help? 'It's only going to make you sad, it's not going to bring her back'. So from an emotional side, I was like 'right, don't ever let your emotions be part of anything.'" Repression though has a cost, and it's steep.

Dr. Don McCreary, co-chair of Toronto Men's Health Network (TMHN), thinks societal attitudes and conforming to outmoded gender rules is in part what keeps men silent. "We have inculcated a culture in our society that men have to be tough, men have to be strong." Of course, when the perception is that any fragility will get flagged, men close up. "Our society is very good at punishing gender deviation in men. Weakness is not considered to be masculine." But feigning strength when you're suffering simply isn't sustainable.

Prince Harry was eventually forced to come to terms with his mother's death after struggling through two particularly rough years of "total chaos" in his late twenties. He says he's thankful it was just two years. At 28, often dealing with acute anxiety during royal engagements and even teetering "on the verge of punching someone" he reached out. Though he was candid about being "very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions" he says he credits therapy and boxing (whose healing properties are worth exploring) with helping him process his grief and getting back on track. He says exercise is key but also credits getting back to nature (science backs him up there too). Now at 32 he says he's "in a good place" and his personal and professional life have improved exponentially.

Prince William, left, and Prince Harry, the sons of Diana and Charles, bow their heads as their mother's coffin is taken out of Westminster Abbey after her funeral service. ( Adam Butler, Getty Images) (Adam Butler/Getty Images)

Dr. Michael Myers, a psychiatrist and clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia says, "in men, mental illness can be masked" and the consequences are devastating. Suffering in silence leads to acting out in unhealthy ways. Often turning to binge drinking, womanizing, hostility or outright abuse. "They're acting out the depression" instead of dealing with it and it's a lose lose for everyone.

Prince Harry says suffering in silence only makes things worse. "Not just for you but everybody else around you as well because you become a problem. I, through a lot of my twenties, was a problem and I didn't know how to deal with it."

Prince Harry admits it's tough to find the right person to talk to and get the right help but he "can't encourage people enough to just have that conversation." He says the support and solidarity you're likely to find is surprising. What's more, many people echo your feelings of struggle, something which is a salve in its own right.

Prince Harry's decision to become vocal about his struggle was made with an aim in mind: that others would break the silence and smash the stigma around mental health. He points out that silence reinforces both the stigma and a false sense of isolation for the sufferer. "The experience I've had is that once you start talking about it, you realise that actually you're part of quite a big club." Opening up is crucial when we examine the alternative. Prince Harry tells Gordon plainly, "If you stay silent, it's more likely to kill you."

That evidence of male mental health vulnerability is seen most clearly in suicide stats. Across every age group, four out of every five Canadians who take their own life are men. Some stats suggest 8 men a day take their own life in Canada. Data for the United Kingdom is just as unpleasant: it confirms that men are about three times more likely to commit suicide than women. 

Mental health, of course, knows no gender but men are expected to display marked control over their emotions (though anger seems to be tolerated, in part). Collectively, as a society we don't always handle negative male emotions well. If you disagree, imagine an office setting where one of your female co-workers breaks down crying. Now imaging a male co-worker doing the same thing. In your heart of hearts, you recognize the difference and it's acute (or flip it and imagine aggression – it's "ok" for men but not for women). But it shouldn't be. Dr Joel Wong, a researcher at Indiana University Bloomington, says the results of his recent study weren't all that shocking given what we know now. "It supports and confirms research done in the last 60 years that people who conform to masculinity have poor mental health."

Prince Harry says "mental fitness relates to every single one of us" and he hopes his work will translate to a healthier United Kingdom. Along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, he now jointly coordinates a charity organization promoting sound mental health in the UK called Heads Together. "What we are trying to do is normalise the conversation to the point where anyone can sit down and have a coffee and just go 'you know what, I've had a really sh*t day, can I just tell you about it?' "

It's a conversation worth having.

Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen