Prince Harry ignites national debate on culture of men shouldering pain alone

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The contribution of influential allies to raising the profile of society’s greatest challenges should not be underestimated.

Princess Diana, while serving as patron for the National AIDS Trust, made huge contributions to combatting the stigma of HIV, shaking the hand of a man in hospital with AIDS, fundamentally changing public perceptions and attitudes towards the condition.

Today the young royals are following in their mother’s footsteps, using their influence to raise the profile of the defining challenge of our time with their Heads Together campaign. This weekend, their involvement went beyond a formal campaign. By opening up about his own experience in an interview with the Telegraph, Prince Harry ignited a national conversation on the culture of men feeling they have to deal with things alone. 

We know from our own research at the Foundation that men are almost 50% more likely to never seek medical support for a mental health problems than women. In the largest survey of its kind, we asked over 2,500 people living with mental health problems about disclosure of mental health problems and experiences of seeking support. 

It found that women were 32% more likely than men to have told friends or family about their mental health problem within a month. Men on the other hand were 40% more likely than women to wait over two years or never tell friends or family about their mental health problem.

Men can often feel isolated and unable to tell people how they are feeling. Vulnerability is a crucial gateway to better mental health, and this is why Prince Harry’s interview is so significant, making him a role model for men across the country. With men three times as likely to end their life by suicide, we have a duty to question our culture and ask what more we can do. As well as the culture shift needed, we will need better resourced services to ensure that no matter where we are on the social gradient, opening -up about our mental health is the first step on the road to recovery.

I had a chat to one of our supporters, 27-year-old Dave Chawner, a comedian who lived with anorexia and depression for 10 years before seeking support to get his thoughts, he said:

"I think it’s important to talk about gender when we talk about mental health, because the ways we’re expected to deal with things is different.

"It is more accepted for men to deal with stress, emotions and situations with anger and aggression. Anything else is interpreted as vulnerability and shut down.

"It’s so important that a reluctance to seek help isn’t mistaken for a lack of severity, especially when it comes to men. Men are more likely to say something like 'I’m feeling a bit shit' when really they mean, 'this is the worst I’ve ever felt in my life and I can’t imagine feeling worse.'"

If we’re ever to rise to challenge of preventing mental health problems, it will be because men feel more able to share when they are vulnerable. We need to challenge toxic ideas of masculinity that prevent openness and vulnerability in men. It takes real courage to be open and honest about mental health, but when suicide is the leading cause of death for young men, we all have a responsibility to push for cultural change.