In 2020 Prince William made a documentary with the BBC. It was called Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health, and it followed the Duke of Cambridge as he interviewed soccer players about issues such as anxiety and depression. William’s own mental health was mentioned, too, and he even opened up about the death of his mother, Princess Diana.
The documentary was released as part of Mental Health Awareness Week in the U.K., which took place during early summer. It was part of a long campaign of work that Prince William has been undertaking to fight the stigma surrounding the issue. Indeed, back in 2016 he, his wife Kate Middleton and his brother Prince Harry started Heads Together, a mental health initiative.
The official Heads Together website explains the organization’s purpose. “Too often, people feel afraid to admit that they are struggling with their mental health,” it reads. “This fear of prejudice and judgement stops people from getting help and can destroy families and end lives. Heads Together wants to help people feel much more comfortable with their everyday mental wellbeing and have the practical tools to support their friends and family.”
The documentary was part of a Heads Together program called Heads Up: Football Unites for Mental Health. In a statement released in January 2020, Prince William said, “Over the course of the next five months, Heads Up will use one of the most powerful, unifying forces in our society – [soccer] – to spread the message that we all have mental health, just as we all have physical health.”
“Our ambition is to start the largest ever conversation on mental health and to ensure there is a lasting mental health legacy for the game in this country,” the Duke of Cambridge’s statement continued. “I hope Heads Up can help us all take another big step forward in shattering the stigma that surrounds mental health.”
In order to do that, in the documentary Prince William detailed some of the issues that he was facing in his own life. One somewhat surprising thing he mentioned was that he had an anxiety about public speaking – something he’s obviously nonetheless done a lot of – and that it took his eyesight failing for him to start feeling differently.
“My eyesight started to tail off a little bit as I got older, and I didn’t used to wear contacts when I was working, so when I gave speeches I couldn’t see anyone’s face,” the duke said. “And it helps, because it’s just a blur of faces and because you can’t see anyone looking at you. I can see enough to read the paper and stuff like that – but I couldn’t actually see the whole room. And, actually, that really helped with my anxiety.”
One thing Prince William wanted to tackle in the documentary was the issue of men committing suicide. “It’s scary and it’s frightening and it’s real,” William said on camera. “It is one of the biggest killers of young men under 45. As pain and grief goes, and I’ve heard this from sadly too many families who have been bereaved by suicide, it is one of the rawest forms of grief because you’re left with so many unanswered questions.”
“Could I have done more, should I have done more, why did they do it?” Prince William, who was clearly becoming emotional, added. “Men seem to have a real issue with opening up and being able to talk about it. If we can have a major impact on lowering suicide rates, that’s a success from this campaign.”
In fact, Prince William has dedicated a lot of time to mental health work. And, often, that includes him being open about his own. In January 2019, for instance, he spoke at the World Economic Forum about his previous work flying helicopter-ambulances. The high-stakes job had, it transpired, taken quite a heavy toll on him.
According to Harper’s Bazaar, with regards to working with the air ambulance, Prince William said, “I still find it very difficult to talk about it. I get very emotional about it because it relates very closely to my children, and so it is very hard to talk about it.” There was a certain event that had been very painful, although he didn’t go into detail.
The prince said that his co-workers had been “very affected by this one particular job” as well but thankfully the team were all able to help one another out by talking about the incident. William said, “I know that if I hadn’t taken the action that I did then, I would’ve definitely gone down a slippery slope and I would’ve been dealing with mental illness on another level.”
“I don’t think you ever get over it, because you go through someone else’s pain and you live with it,” William added. “I just felt that the most important thing was understanding and realizing it was there. And I think that if I hadn’t been doing what I was doing, I might’ve gone into my shell a bit and gone, ‘I can deal with this myself.’ And then, potentially, down the line, it manifests itself in a much worse situation.”
And in May 2019 the Duke of Cambridge collaborated on a different documentary, A Royal Team Talk. In it, he spoke about mental health with famous soccer players including Gareth Southgate, Thierry Henry and Peter Crouch. Once again, William touched upon what the air ambulance job had been like.
“It leaves you with a very depressing, very negative feeling, where you think death is just around the door everywhere I go,” William explained. “And that’s quite a burden to carry and feel. And I felt that with a few jobs that I did, where there were particular personal resonations with the families that I was dealing with.”
At the moment, then, the royal family appears to be refreshingly open about discussing mental health. But arguably the first royal to talk about this was Princess Diana. Back in 1995, just a few years before her untimely death, she talked to the BBC’s Panorama about some life experience she’d been through.
“I was unwell with post-natal depression, which no one ever discusses, post-natal depression,” Diana said on the show. “You have to read about it afterwards, and that in itself was a bit of a difficult time. You’d wake up in the morning feeling you didn’t want to get out of bed, you felt misunderstood, and just very, very low in yourself.”
The mother of William and Harry added, “I received a great deal of treatment, but I knew in myself that actually what I needed was space and time to adapt to all the different roles that had come my way. I knew I could do it, but I needed people to be patient and give me the space to do it.”
Asked what the other royals thought at the time, Diana said, “Well, maybe I was the first person ever to be in this family who ever had a depression or was ever openly tearful. And obviously that was daunting, because if you’ve never seen it before how do you support it? It gave everybody a wonderful new label: Diana’s unstable and Diana’s mentally unbalanced.”
The subject of Diana naturally came up in Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health. Her unexpected death in 1997 had shocked the world, of course. The 36-year-old princess had been in Paris when she was involved in a car crash that killed her, her partner Dodi Fayed and their chauffeur Henri Paul.
Of no small significance was the fact that paparazzi had been chasing the car that night. The moment Diana and Fayed departed the Ritz Paris Hotel, photographers on motorbikes began following them. Furthermore, the chauffeur was drunk behind the wheel, and none of the passengers were wearing seatbelts. It was a deadly, tragic combination.
Diana had been loved by the British public at the time of her death. There was subsequently a massive display of affection, the likes of which had barely been seen before. People came out in their thousands to pay tribute. Huge stacks of flowers started appearing outside the royal palaces.
When Diana passed away, William had been only 15 years old and his brother Harry just 12. The two of them were kept from the limelight as much as possible in the days after Diana’s death. Their grandmother the Queen even had newspapers removed from their home in order that they wouldn’t see the headlines about their mother.
However, both boys were present for Diana’s public funeral, and they followed her coffin on foot while millions of people watched. Needless to say, the experience affected both of them in many ways. And once William and Harry were adults, they began speaking about how their mother’s death impacted on their mental health.
In the course of filming Football, Prince William And Our Mental Health, William again opened up about certain aspects of how Diana’s death had affected him. During the show, he conducted an interview with soccer player Marvin Sordell. In it, the latter talked about how he grew up without a father and then later had difficulties of his own with parenthood.
“I can relate to what you’re saying,” William told Sordell. “I mean, having children is the biggest life-changing moment, it really is… I think when you’ve been through something traumatic in life… your Dad not being around, my mother dying when I was younger, your emotions come back in leaps and bounds.”
“Because it’s a different phase of life, and there is no one there to kind of help you,” the prince continued. “I definitely found it very, at times, overwhelming. Me and Catherine particularly, we support each other and we go through those moments together and we kind of evolve and learn together.”
“But I do agree with you,” William added. “I think emotionally things come out of the blue that you don’t ever expect or that maybe you think you’ve dealt with. So I can completely relate to what you’re saying about children coming along, it’s one of the most amazing moments of life but it’s also one of the scariest.”
At the end of the conversation, a touching moment took place in front of the cameras. William told Sordell, “Your dad would be very proud of you, he would.” The footballer replied, “As your mum would.” A touched Prince William answered, “Thank you, I appreciate that.”
Both Prince William and Prince Harry have over the years discussed how their mother’s death and its aftermath left mental scars. This conversation formed a big part of the BBC documentary Diana, 7 Days, which was released in August 2017 to coincide with the 20-year anniversary of Diana’s passing.
In the documentary, William recalled what it was like hearing about his mother’s death. “I remember just feeling completely numb, disorientated, dizzy,” he said. “You feel very, very confused. And you keep asking yourself, ‘Why me?’ All the time, ‘Why? What have I done? Why? Why has this happened to us?’”
William remembered being taken out to see the flower tributes, saying, “All I cared about was, I’d lost my mother, and I didn’t want to be where I was… When we go out and do things like that, in order not to completely and utterly break down, we have to put on a bit of a game face. And you have to be quite strong about it because otherwise you’re a walking mess.”
After that another subject came up: Prince William and Prince Harry having to walk behind their mother’s casket. Earlier in 2017, Prince Harry had told Newsweek magazine, “I don’t think any child should be asked to do that, under any circumstances. I don’t think it would happen today.”
In the documentary, Prince Harry spoke again about that incident – and he’d perhaps changed his view on it a little. “Generally, I don’t have an opinion on whether that was right or wrong. I am glad I was part of it,” he told the BBC cameras. “Looking back on it now, I am very glad I was part of it.”
Prince William had thoughts on the subject, too. “It wasn’t an easy decision, and it was sort of a collective family decision to do that,” he explained. “It was one of the hardest things I have ever done.” But also, he added, there had been “this element of duty and responsibility that you have to do things you don’t want to do.”
“I have to say that whenever it becomes that personal as walking behind your mother’s funeral cortege, it gets to another level of duty,” the Duke of Cambridge continued. “But I just kept thinking about what she would want and that she’d be proud of Harry and I being able to go through it.”
There had been a “balance between me being Prince William and having to do my bit, versus the private William who just wanted to go in a room and cry because he’d lost his mother.” He’d even hidden behind his hair at the funeral. William admitted, “I know it sounds ridiculous, but at the time I felt if I looked at the floor with my hair in my face, no one could see me.”
“I wouldn’t let it break me. I wanted it to make me,” William concluded. “I wanted her to be proud of the person I would become, and I didn’t want her worried or her legacy to be that William or Harry were completely and utterly devastated by it. She loved Harry and I dearly, even so that I can sit here after 20 years and I still feel that love.”
In addition to releasing documentaries about mental health, Prince William has also become proactively involved in such matters. For instance, in June 2020 it was revealed that the prince had been secretly volunteering for the mental health crisis line Shout, which he and his wife had helped to create along with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
After the news hit, the official Twitter account for Shout tweeted, “The Duke’s experience and empathy for people experiencing difficulty are a fantastic asset to the service, underpinned by the training, supervision and support network of volunteers.” And it’s easy to see where that empathy came from.