The campaign to de-stigmatize mental health problems recently received a big, far-reaching endorsement from an unexpected champion – Prince Harry of Britain. The prince’s actions are to be applauded. Despite significant improvements in mental health treatments, persistent stigma still prevails. And that keeps many children and adults who have experienced trauma from getting the help they need to heal.
In a candid interview on Monday, Prince Harry voiced his challenges following the death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, when he was only 12 years old. He discussed his “meltdowns” and problems as he strove to bottle his emotions and maintain the quintessential British “stiff upper lip.” Most importantly, Prince Harry described his positive results from seeking counseling and his hopes that others would not suffer in silence, but would also seek services.
Mental health organizations have tried for many years to strip away the erroneous idea that only “weak” people or those with something “really wrong” benefit from mental health services. Prince Harry’s interview and the Heads Together campaign that he and his brother, Prince William, have launched, could greatly help that goal by opening a wider popular discussion of the critical need for mental health services and their utilization.
Many studies of mental health issues disprove the popular notion that “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We know that trauma and stressful events, including grief and bereavement, exact a cumulative toll on our emotional and physical well-being. The more adverse events a person experiences, the greater the risk for mental health problems and physical health problems such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and substance abuse. Funding mental health services should be on par with physical health services, as physical and mental health are interwoven.
The majority of children experience the death of a family member or friend by the time they complete high school, as did Prince Harry. However, few in need may get the support and services to effectively cope and heal. Death is often a taboo topic, especially if the death occurs due to a traumatic event such as car accident or disaster, or a socially taboo reason such as a homicide or drug overdose. Furthermore, when a death occurs in the public eye as Diana’s did, healing can be more complicated. For individuals struggling with depression, the stigma of seeking help is often an insurmountable barrier. Untreated depression often worsens, and in the worst cases can result in suicide.
Young children often express their reactions to trauma through behavior problems. Adults, meanwhile, tend to focus on the behaviors rather than looking below the surface. Adults also mistakenly try to shield children by avoiding discussions of death and other traumatic events. In reality, talking is the most important step we can take to help our children heal from trauma and loss. In general, adults underestimate children’s reactions to traumatic events, death and extreme stressors. Seeking mental health services is the first step toward understanding and responding to children’s needs. This help can, in turn, translate into a more healthy and resilient adult.
Yes, most children are resilient, if they have caring adults who support them. But being resilient does not mean no help is needed. When children show a change in behavior, academics, relationships or daily functioning, the best approach is to reach out. Help is there.
We have made great strides in the availability of effective, evidence-based mental health services for children. Pediatricians, family physicians, local mental health services and organizations such as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network and the American Psychological Association’s Help Center are all committed to helping families find the care they need.
With the example that Prince Harry has set, hopefully, more families will seek mental health services. With help, children and families can effectively navigate significant challenges and traumatic events. And when that happens, children are much more likely to grow up to reach their full potential.
Robin Gurwitch is a psychologist and a professor in the Duke University School of Medicine and an expert in child trauma. She is an active member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which advocates for improved services for traumatized children.