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How Princess Diana Flipped the Conversation About Mental Health

mental health

In both life and death, Diana, Princess of Wales, has always sparked controversy. Was she the tragic princess, or the media manipulator? A lost little girl looking for love, or a fame-hungry actress?

Ask almost anyone and they’ve got an opinion — because Diana was a part of people’s lives, whether they liked it or not. And when she spoke up about something, the conversation surrounding it shifted.

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Now, 20 years after her death, the broadcast of tapes she recorded in 1993 — in which she reveals some of her deepest, most personal experiences — is putting Diana in the spotlight once more. And whether you agree with the release or not, one thing is for sure: There’s something valuable to be learned from her story.

Diana broke down walls

From the moment she joined the “stiff upper lip” generation of royals, Diana refused to play the part. She spoke up about issues the royals wouldn’t touch — literally.

In 1987, she was the first major public figure to shake hands with an AIDS patient, a simple compassionate gesture that radically changed public perceptions of the disease. And in the later days of her marriage, she was honest about the unhappiness that she felt in her marriage to Prince Charles, and the lasting emotional damage it caused.

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In audio tape recordings she made for journalist Andrew Morton, which resulted in the biography: “Diana: Her True Story,” Diana spoke candidly of the emotional abuse and unfaithfulness she experienced in her marriage, of her breakdowns and bulimia, and even of her suicide attempts.

Perhaps we need to look more closely at the cause of the illness rather than attempt to suppress it. To accept that putting a lid on powerful feelings and emotions cannot be the healthy option.
– Diana, Princess of Wales

Diana’s revelations sent shockwaves throughout Britain and the world. One study even shows there was a spike in people reporting eating disorders after Diana opened up about her own bulimia nervosa. The press dubbed it the “Diana effect.”

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Opening up the conversation about mental health

With regards to mental health, too, she inspired honesty in others through her compassion and willingness to communicate her own experiences. At a Turning Point’s conference in June of 1993, she spoke about the importance of addressing mental health needs — women’s, specifically.

“Isn't it normal not to be able to cope all the time? Isn't it normal for women as well as men to feel frustrated with life? Isn't it normal to feel angry and want to change a situation that is hurting?” she asked. “Perhaps we need to look more closely at the cause of the illness rather than attempt to suppress it. To accept that putting a lid on powerful feelings and emotions cannot be the healthy option.”

Fast forward to 2017, and we see her sons William and Harry breaking the royal mold completely, doing the same sort of advocacy work their mother had pursued. In a conversation he had with Lady Gaga as part of the #oktosay awareness campaign by Heads Together, William spoke about the importance of having conversations about mental health.

“It's so important to break open that fear and that taboo which is only going to lead to more problems down the line.”

A voice for men’s mental health

Harry, in particular, has been very open about the mental health issues he’s faced himself. In the U.K., males between the ages of 35-44 (Harry’s demographic) as well as 45-59 have the highest rate of suicide.

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Labelled as the troubled royal, his years of drinking to excess, partying naked in Vegas, and famously turning up to a party dressed as a Nazi soldier were well publicized. But, as he’s admitted in the years since, these were all just coping mechanisms.

In an interview with Newsweek, he spoke up about the trauma he endured at Diana’s funeral, walking behind his mother’s casket in front of millions of people. I think we can all recall the image of the 12-year-old prince walking with his father and brother, trying to be brave.

He admits to bottling up his emotions for years, in an interview with The Telegraph. “I have probably been very close to a complete breakdown on numerous occasions when all sorts of grief and sort of lies and misconceptions and everything are coming to you from every angle.”

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“The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you’re part of quite a big club,” he told the paper.

Prince Harry’s openness is another step in the right direction for spreading awareness about mental health. It has no doubt helped and comforted hundreds, if not thousands of men.

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An important legacy

In the U.K. especially, Diana will always be known as the “People’s Princess.” She showed real compassion to those less fortunate, and encouraged others to speak up about the issues that affected them by being open about the problems she faced herself.

That legacy is an important one to the mental health awareness community, and it’s one her sons seem committed to continuing.

If you or anyone you know are in crisis or experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For more resources or simply more information, go to MentalHealth.gov.

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claire eastham

Claire Eastham is an award-winning blogger and bestselling author of We’re All Mad Here. Visit her website or connect with her on Twitter!

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