Prince Harry has been doing a lot of good works in recent times – he’s very dedicated to the cause of injured soldiers – and now he has joined his brother and sister-in-law in a mental health charity, Heads Together.
In promoting mental health, Harry has referred to his regrets in not talking about his mother’s death for many years. He was 12 when Diana died. Now 31, he chose to keep his sense of loss private for many years.
Mental illness and depression can affect anyone, Harry has said, whether you’re a member of the Royal Family or “white van man” – the average handyman or delivery bloke. He is right about that and what he is doing is admirable.
But there is one aspect of this campaign which I think is misleading and erroneous. Mental health, which might include any condition from clinical depression to schizophrenia, from obsessive compulsive disorder to psychopathic personality disturbance, should certainly be taken seriously, treated, and regarded with compassion, not stigma. But mental illness is not the same as grief and bereavement.
When someone you love dies, you suffer the emotional pain of bereavement, loss and grief – which can be utterly despairing and wretched. The death of a mother (or a child) plunges any normal person into an immense sadness. And indeed the bereaved should be encouraged to express their grief, as every religious tradition does. (There’s a Jewish ritual in which the bereaved tear their shirt, as a symbolic re-enactment of rending their garments with sorrow.)
But grief, though it can feel unbearable, is not mental illness. It is a normal and appropriate reaction to loss. Indeed, if you didn’t feel grief, you would be a sociopath – someone devoid of feelings.
People do need to mourn – Harry is right about that – and to express their mourning. But grief shouldn’t be conflated with mental illness.
I have been a tremendous snob about the Irish comedy programme shown on BBC television, Mrs Brown’s Boys. Ghastly! So coarse and corny! My sense of comedy, I like to emphasise, is directed towards the more sophisticated end of the spectrum – give me Woody Allen, with his quips which draw on Dostoyevsky and the Old Testament (“The lion may lie down with the lamb, but that doesn’t mean the lamb will have a good night’s sleep!”).
But I happened upon the new series of Mrs Brown last Saturday night, and after a tense and anxious week, I confess that it made me laugh. Yes, it’s vulgar and the jokes are as old as the hills and as simple as pie, but there is such a patina of cordial good humour, the audience is so hugely cheerful and involved, and Brendan O’Carroll, the eponymous Mrs Brown, has that genius element of comic performance: timing and the deadpan reaction.
There’s an element of what our mothers would have called “bad language”, but even that is carried off with a lightness of touch, so that you hardly catch the word before it is gone. And sometimes the swearword can have a droll effect. Mrs Brown lives in a Dublin suburb called Finglas, and the local newspaper announces that Finglas would now like to leave the EU, leading us to – “Fecksit”!
Mrs Brown’s hairdresser son is gay, and just about the campest gay person on television since John Inman in Are You Being Served?, but again, it’s all done with high good humour.
The Catholic Church, and the local parish priest, are depicted as a natural part of the community, and the family are portrayed as Mass-goers (and in particular, funeral-goers, which is authentically Irish).
The holy pictures around the house – large and perhaps somewhat lurid Sacred Heart images – are somewhat old-fashioned, perhaps in keeping with the humour. But it’s all blended into a stream of everyday life, comical, broad, confident and energetic. I may even watch it again.
Fr Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk who is one of the 3,500 Britons in Poland this week, has dubbed World Youth Day at Kraków “Glastonbury with God”. Good branding. There’s always been a hippyish side to Christianity – from St John the Baptist to St Francis of Assisi – which is well worth celebrating.
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