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So much for the stiff upper lip

Prince Harry has come forward to say he needed counselling to deal with the death of Diana. His words have broken the shield of shame on mental health issues.

First, a little history lesson. A hundred years ago, when Great Britain, its Empire forces along with those of the French Republic and the Russian Empire that made up the Grand Alliance, were deep in the mud and blood of the First World War, newly developed German heavy bombers were wreaking havoc on the coastal towns of southeast England.

The planes were heavy, lumbering, but managed to spread fear more than anything else in a British public unused to the horrors of Flanders dropping from the sky above them. Their effects were more psychological than anything else.

What made a public relations nightmare was that the plane type was called the Gotha G. IV, not exactly a name that rolls off the tongue. But for those Britons with a stiff upper lip, there was a very unhappy coincidence. When soldiers signed up — or were conscripted to fight — in the trenches, they did so to serve King and Country. Trouble was, King George V was a member of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.

Ever since the marriage in 1840 of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, the lineage of the British Empire has a distinctly German flavour.

This history lesson ends now with the decision in July 1917 by George V to change the name of his royal line, creating the House of Windsor. The change had an immediate psychological effect.

To this day, and for the foreseeable future, the House of Windsor rules. Queen Elizabeth II has surpassed Victoria as the longest-reigning British monarch, with Prince Charles first in the line of succession, his son Prince William next, and then his son, three-year-old Prince George. There’s an heir and spares and the family business is secure.

So what’s a guy like Prince Harry to do? He’s the younger brother of Prince William and the son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana. As the family grows, Harry gets bumped further down the line. When Prince Harry Charles Albert David was born in September 1984, he was third in line to succeed his grandmother. Now he’s fifth.

There are milestones and events that affect us all in ways we know not at the time. Our psyche is scarred by family upheavals, deaths and tragedies, divorces and scandals. It matters not of our wealth, our circumstances, pomp nor personality; personal pain is real, deep, dark and clutches to our soul.

By the time that Harry was eight, his mother and father had gone their separate ways. Royal family or not, acrimony and anger had replaced love and living as normally as royals do. It was also a separation that was played out on television and newspapers. It was no normal childhood, and the headlines would have a psychological effect on even the most hardened and protected celebrity.

By the time Harry was 10 his father Charles, the Prince of Wales, had revealed in a television documentary that he, as those who speak would speak with stiff upper lips would say, was a cad and a bounder. He had enjoyed a long-time affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles, the erstwhile wife of a Blues and Royals cavalry officer.

And by the time Harry was 11 his mother, the Princess of Wales, had revealed in a television interview that “there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded”.

If that’s not deeply scarring to a pre-adolescent boy, then worse was to follow. Much worse.

There had always been tabloid tittle-tat about Diana’s affair with a cavalry officer, James Hewitt. For five years, the two had cavorted in secret, a twist and tryst that Diana also admitted to. “Yes, I adored him. Yes, I was in love with him. But I was very let down,” she told a gobsmacked British public tuning in to the BBC. Just imagine the gobsmacking that would have had on little Harry. And he was still trying to come to terms then too with his mom’s new boyfriend, Dodi Al Fayed, and had been to his yacht and maybe he was to be Harry’s new father figure.

Those of us old enough to remember, know where we were on the morning of August 31, 1997. That was when Diana and Dodi died in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris.

What followed next were events that still resonate, iconic images of the 20th Century: the sea of flowers outside Kensington Palace; the Queen and her family meeting truly grief-stricken Britons; the funeral and Sir Elton John’s Candle in the Wind; grandfather Philip — the Duke of Edinburgh — with son and two young grandsons, William and Harry, walking in a funeral cortege organised with precision and ceremony as only the British military can muster.

That would deeply affect anyone.

Is it any wonder then that given all of the events that transpired in a young adolescent life, that a mature man now would have sought counselling to cope?

Harry, last week, has had the courage to step forward and admit that he needed help to deal with his mother’s death. He had, he said, come close to a breakdown, following 15 years of not thinking about that horrible event. It was not until his late 20s, after two years of “total chaos”, that he processed the grief.

The 32-year-old told the Daily Telegraph: “My way of dealing with it was sticking my head in the sand, refusing to ever think about my mum, because why would that help?”

Harry is to be admired. His words last week have done to lower the veil on the need for counselling.

Finally, that stiff upper lip is beginning to quiver.

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