Prince Harry has been admirable in disclosing his feelings about the loss of his mother at the age of 12, and how that grief affected him 20 years down the line. The loss of a parent on the cusp of, or during, adolescence can be devastating and can indeed have long-term affects.
When I was researching the question of heroin addiction among young people, I came across evidence that one of the triggers that can start a heroin addiction habit is the loss of a parent in these years – either through death or divorce. Very young children adapt better to a loss than adolescents, for reasons that are readily understood: a new routine can help a young child, whereas an adolescent, already going through a transformative period in life, can find loss of a strong attachment profoundly wounding.
Harry is surely right to have sought counselling for the emotional “chaos”, as he puts it, that he felt. But with respect, I don’t think that it is correct to associate the pain of bereavement with mental health issues. This, I believe, is a diagnostic error that runs through our society and should be examined. Grief and sorrow are deeply distressing experiences, but they are not a form of mental illness. To feel grief and sorrow is a normal response to a very sad event. Indeed, not to feel grief and sorrow as a consequence of loss would be a greater indication of having something wrong with your emotional processes.
This confusion of grief with “mental health issues” has a link with the ebbing of religious sensibility in society, and the medicalisation of every human experience. Religious cultures have always had meaningful rites for mourning – the Jewish tradition includes tearing your clothes as a sign of grief. Until modern times Christian societies encouraged the wearing of mourning for at least a year.
Prince Harry seems a lovely young man, and he will have helped many people by being open about the loss of his mother. But sorrow and grief are not a mental illness just the same.
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