02BlackoutMost of us have them in our families. 

Sometimes we refer to them as “an eccentric” or a “real character,” like one of my favorite relatives who wanted more of the women in our family to be blonde. If you look at my photo on this page, you will see blonde is not my natural hair color. 

Sometimes, there is no denying the situation is beyond eccentricity, like a cousin who was so angry at the power company in his area that he set up a flat bed truck decorated with Christmas lights and railed about his grievances with a megaphone to passing motorists. That was when he was not dropping anti-power company leaflets out of his twin-engine plane all over the crop fields of his rural county.

Sometimes, it is clear we are dealing with a mental illness, like another cousin who is struggling with significant depression in her senior years. It is this kind and other serious conditions that we find so difficult to acknowledge and to discuss within our own families and without.

That is why it struck me when I read last month about Britain’s Prince Harry, the red-headed, fun-loving, hard-partying bachelor prince, and his public announcement of his battles to keep mental and emotional equilibrium after the sudden death of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, when he was only 12 years old. Prince Harry confessed he more or less shut down his emotions for 20 years, with neither he nor his older brother, William, talking much about their mother and the loss of her. Prince Harry said bottling up his emotions hurt both his personal life and his work.

Part of his coming out about his mental health issues included a filmed interview with Harry, William and William’s wife, Kate Middleton, about the importance of being open about mental health.

Joining in the ongoing conversation is Lady Gaga, who has spoken openly about living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Like Prince Harry, Lady Gaga spoke publicly with Prince William about her mental health.

The British princes are not the first children to lose their mother suddenly and too early, nor is the flamboyant entertainer the first celebrity to have had a traumatic past. The difference is they are talking about their experiences. They are urging others to do so as well and to seek help for mental health issues when we need it.

Writing recently in The News & Observer, Duke University psychology professor Robin Gurwitch said children often experience death of a loved one or some other trauma that, left unaddressed whether through talking to others or through professional counseling, can lead to crippling depression. 

We cannot shield children from these experiences, but we can help them understand and cope. “In reality, talking is the most important step we can take to help our children heal from trauma and loss,” said Gurwitch.

Talking truthfully about our experiences chips away at the stigma of mental stress and illness, with well-known people bravely leading the way. The other critical piece of the equation is providing access to needed mental health services. 

North Carolina tried to set up community-based services in the early 2000s, but I do not know anyone who thinks this system is yet working the way it should. Many of the homeless people we see in our community are in need of mental health services that simply are not available to them. We can and must do better.

Many years ago, a person in her 50s and dear to me was successfully treated for long-term substance abuse, and when she returned, we did talk about her issues in a way we never had before treatment. I asked her what she had learned during her time away. She thought a moment and said, “I learned that everyone has problems. I had thought I was the only one.”

She had thought that for decades, probably because no one talked much about substance abuse or other mental health issues — or if they did, it was probably to criticize and not to offer help. My dear one is long gone now, but I still feel sad that she lived with substance abuse longer than she might have because no one was willing to talk about it honestly.

My guess is Prince Harry and Lady Gaga have access to all sorts of treatment, and their forthright conversations about mental health are going to help many people. The rest of us can do that as well by acknowledging mental illness for what it is — a collection of largely treatable conditions, just like most physical illnesses, which most of us love to discuss ad infinitum.

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