Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Lessons From Prince and Other Royals

Last week, Prince, the beloved pop icon, died from what appears to be a drug overdose while Princess Kate, Prince William and Prince Harry lent royal support to The Heads Together campaign – reminding us that even those who seem invincible can be affected by mental illness and those with a public platform can change the discourse on mental health.

1. Prince. While the autopsy results are not yet in, all signs point to an overdose of prescription pain medication as the cause of the death of the famed Purple Rain singer. Prince was crippled by anxiety that he fiercely tried to hide from the public. Lesson: Mental illness is fairly indiscriminate when it comes to class, race, gender or ability to do splits on stage in tight pants. In fact, the 2015 World Drug Report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that approximately 200,000 people die from drug-related deaths annually – and that is surely an underestimate. 

2. Princess Diana: The “People’s Princess” was the most photographed woman of her time. She also struggled with an eating disorder for many years and was one of the first royals to use her position to bring attention to mental illness. In 1993, when no one else dared speak about mental illness, she addressed a London conference saying, “I have it on very good authority … that the nourishment of the body can turn into a painful attack on oneself.” Lesson: Princess Diana’s public recognition of the debilitating effects of mental illness, including eating disorders, validated the truth that even princesses have mental health problems and the only way forward is to break the silence.

3. Princess Kate, Prince William and Prince Harry. The next generation of English Royals has taken up Diana’s cause. Kate is the royal patron for the Heads Together Campaign, and earlier this year, she served as guest editor for the Huffington Post on kids’ mental health needs. In a video this week, Kate Middleton goofs around with the princess donning sweat bands for their cause, but she’s all seriousness when she says “Mental health is just as important as physical health.” Lesson: Public platforms are powerful. This posh family’s deep concern about mental health, particularly in young people goes a long way to raise awareness.

4. Queen Rania of Jordan. Recognizing the major mental health issues that the Syrian refugee communities are facing, Queen Rania Al Abdullah visited International Rescue Committee (IRC) programs on the Greek Island of Lesbos. As a prominent IRC advocate, Queen Rania reminds us, “Refugees are not numbers, they are human beings like you and me. Except they have seen unimaginable horror, experienced unthinkable hardship and risked their lives to get here.” She is right, but the numbers are staggering nonetheless: 59.9 million people are currently forcibly displaced from their homes across the globe – the highest number since World War II. If all refugees lived in one place, they would be the 24th most populous country (right behind Italy) – and an estimated 30% have mental health conditions requiring care. Lesson: When we think disaster relief, mental health services belong on the same list right behind clean water and dry clothes.

5. Princess Anna: Disney princess extraordinaire, Princess Anna is the younger sister in the blockbuster hit, Frozen. Her older sister, Elsa, who is in line for the throne, is locked away from the public in an attempt to keep secret her magical power. Filled with loyalty and love, Princess Anna sets out on a daring and dangerous adventure to bring her beloved, exiled sister back to their kingdom – sure that they can figure out how Elsa can properly take her place as queen and serve their people. Lesson: People who are “different” are frequently banished. Making one’s way back into the community is a journey. No one gets there fearlessly; no one gets there alone; and we should all be so lucky to our own “Anna.”

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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