As I made my way to the King Power stadium in early January to watch Leicester City’s FA Cup third round tie against Wigan Athletic, mental health was not on my mind. I had noticed the unusual kick-off time of 5.31pm, but assumed this was just some bit of eccentric bureaucracy.
When I got there I realised that the short delay was so we could all watch a video for Prince William’s mental health charity Heads Up, featuring lots of famous football faces and narrated by his royal mindfulness himself. The point being made was that it only takes a minute to start a conversation. “That’s nice,” I said to the bloke next to me, who actually didn’t want to start a conversation about mental health issues right then, so maybe there’s a bit more progress to make.
I also thought “that’s nice” while watching the full 60-minute version on the BBC, Football, Prince William and Our Mental Health. Directed by Marcus Plowright (American High School, The Murder of Jill Dando), the film is basically a succession of often humbling and inspirational encounters between the prince (a committed fan of Aston Villa FC) and various figures from the world of football, including legendary goalie Joe Hart, Chelsea manager Frank Lampard and England centre-back Tyrone Mings.
One of the documentary’s most remarkable moments features a grassroots football team in Northampton called Sands United, which is comprised entirely of fathers who have lost a child. (The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity, hence “Sands”, aim to establish many more “Sands United” teams around the country.) Far from wanting simply to forget – which is what so many people assume they’d be keen to do – the guys all meet around a table and talk candidly to each other and the Duke of Cambridge about their experiences. The latter proves a good listener and talker, and is seemingly determined to personally disprove the convention that, “as Brits”, we’re not supposed to get all “emotional” and empathetic: “It’s OK not to be OK.”
This is, of course, far from the traditional image of the House of Windsor as a buttoned-up, emotionally repressed case study of a family with ice running through their veins. I couldn’t help recalling the anecdote about William’s great great grandfather, King George V, who responded to the outing of a gay aristocrat in 1931 with: “I thought men like that shot themselves”.
During a conversation with Marvin Sordell, a promising player whose career was unjustly stymied by bouts of depression, William mentions the death of his mother, but only on that one occasion, seeing as he didn’t really need to remind anyone about it and this wasn’t really about him. Sordell became a dad a few years ago and says he struggled with his emotions. William agrees and shares his own private anxieties: “I can relate to what you’re saying. Having children is the biggest life-changing moment, and when you’ve been through something traumatic in life, like my mother dying, your emotions come back in leaps and bounds because it’s a very different phase of life and there’s no one there to help you. I definitely found that very, at times, overwhelming.”
At one point in his film, William offers a view about why men are shy about “opening up”, putting it down to the experiences of generations who went through the “atrocities, the grief and the sadness” of two world wars, and who had to internalise their problems. It’s probably nonsense, but it’s as good an explanation as any I’ve heard.
The problem with mental health isn’t so much raising awareness or understanding the issue these days but more in securing the treatment and resources needed. It probably needs to be politicised with a campaign to win a statutory right to mental health treatment. Maybe Prince William could help with that. That would be nice.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies