Prince Harry has done something no member of Britain’s famously reserved royal family has ever done: He has spoken publicly about his mental health challenges following the death of his mother. By speaking candidly in an interview with The Telegraph, Prince Harry has opened another window on the truth about how vulnerable we human beings are to traumatic events that unfold in our lives, particularly when we are young.
Prince Harry, of course, lost his mother, Princess Diana, to a fatal car crash when he was 12 years old. The unspeakable grief of that loss would certainly be enough to set the stage for him “shutting down all [his] emotions for the last twenty years,” leading him to experience unwieldy tides of anxiety, rage and sadness.
Harry went on to become an Apache helicopter commander in the British Army. But he asserts that nothing he experienced in the military eclipsed the horror of hearing his mother had died.
That makes sense. There is very little more painful in the world to an adolescent boy than hearing, suddenly, that his mother is no longer alive—and that she died in the company of an adult male, with whom she was romantically linked. It is, in a way, an unthinkable event. And, therein, lies much of the problem.
I have treated CEOs and cabinet members and Marines and surgeons who were perfect stewards of their companies or our country or the health of their patients, but who crumbled, at some point, because they felt helpless or unloved or unwanted or unsafe as children.
See, we like to think of children as resilient, but my experience tells me that children are not so very resilient. They are exquisitely sensitive. And while they may seem to rebound effortlessly from losses, or from being neglected or abused, they generally don’t. They instinctively cover up their pain, sometimes for decades, but it often wreacks havoc underground. The seeds of major depression and panic disorder and attention deficit disorder and heroin abuse can be planted in very early chapters of our life stories.
Sure, those with major depression or panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder may have altered levels of brain chemicals like dopamine or serotonin or norepinephrine. But we should never assume that the levels of those neurochemicals were not disturbed by life events—sometimes, very, very early ones.
It is worth noting, I believe, that not one of the thousands of patients I have treated leaves me baffled as to what shook the foundation of his or her emotional well-being. Every single problem of mood, anxiety, personality, perception or behavior I have treated has made intuitive, empathetic sense. What’s more, every perpetrator of horrific violence about whom I have testified in court as a forensic psychiatrist as had a life story that would curl the hairs at the back of your neck. Their empathy for others was lost when they stopped feeling for themselves, because what they would have had to feel was too horrific.
Does the impact of life events on our psychological well-being mean that there is no place for medications or new healing technologies in psychiatry? Not at all.
Medications and treatments like deep transcranial magnetic stimulation (dTMS) can stabilize chemical messenger systems that have been tilted out of balance. Thank God for the researchers and companies that have discovered these medications and technologies and made them available.
But our culture has tended to dismiss, if not denigrate, the incredible power of human empathy, properly harnessed, to heal psychiatric disorders. And it is a great tribute to Prince Harry that he is brave enough to prod us into acknowledging that helping a person uncover the buried pages and chapters of his life story can actually heal that person.
Think about that, for a moment. It’s startling, isn’t it? One person listening in an expert and determined and loving way can heal another. That’s a miracle. Nothing less.
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.