This week started with a circus of tabloid coverage about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex deciding to “step back” from their roles as senior members of the royal family.
The week ended with Prince Harry making it eminently clear that one thing he is not stepping back from is his mental health advocacy work.
Prince Harry advocates for mind fitness. Prince Harry is Patron of the Rugby Football League. Yesterday, in his first public appearance since the turmoil on Monday, Prince Harry assisted with the 2021 Rugby League World Cup draw. He used the opportunity to help launch the Rugby League’s mental fitness initiative, featuring in the promotional video above in which he states that rugby “is not just about being physically fit but more importantly mentally strong.”
Mental fitness charter. The Rugby League World Cup 2021 is the first major international sporting event to launch a Mental Fitness Charter. The overall objective of this charter is to educate all those involved in the tournament and the wider Rugby League family about the need to look after their own mental fitness and support others to do the same. The Mental Fitness Charter contains various training and programming initiatives in mental health fitness for Rugby League communities in all 21 participating nations. The Charter has a special focus on youth rugby players and their parents with the aim of making lasting and generational changes to the way mental ill health is understood and treated.
What does Prince Harry know about mental health? A lot. All the data about adverse childhood experiences (ACES) applies to princes, too. Both Prince Harry and Prince William have publicly spoken about their mental and emotional challenges after the death of their mother, Princess Diana of Wales. Since then, the brothers have partnered with the Heads Together Campaign to end stigma and change the conversation around mental health in Britain. Last year, they supported development of Shout, a UK-based app with 24/7 free crisis support texting similar to Crisis Text Line in the United States. Harry and William also joined spouses Meghan and Kate on advertisements for a mental health awareness campaign called “Every Mind Matters.”
Bringing the mental health back into sports. Play is a universal dimension of human development that has innumerable positive health benefits, including mental health. Organized, team sports are a natural extension of play. We know that exercise improves mental agility and helps our minds think more clearly. Running for 15 minutes a day is linked to a 26% reduction in the risk of major depression. Teamwork from sports teaches resilience, leadership, and self-confidence. Unfortunately, we are witnessing growing competitiveness and intensity in sports, which has led to increased injuries, mental stress, and exhaustion among many athletes. The controversy around Nike’s Oregon training facility’s culture shows one extreme of this attitude of winning-at-all costs. By taking a public stand with their new Mental Health Charter, Prince Harry and the entire Rugby Football League are modeling a movement to get sports reconnected to their healthy roots that support, rather than harm, mental health – even at the most competitive levels.
Men, mental health, and rugby. Rugby is a sport dominated by men: 93% of the 42,000 Rugby league players and 70% of spectators are male. So while the Rugby League’s Mental Health Charter explicitly includes all athletes, it most definitely provides an opening for more conversation about male mental health. The Rugby League has already started to tackle the importance of talking about mental health for men. On World Mental Health Day 2019, international rugby stars spoke out about suicide prevention and the statistic that a man dies by suicide every minute–80 men for every 80-minute game of the Rugby World Cup. It is hard to solve problems in the dark, and these conversations really do have the potential to serve as beacons for change.
As I look back on the week, it is clear to me that both the beginning and end of the week were all about mental health for Harry and Meghan. Stepping back from the role of “senior” royals to reclaim some privacy, focus on each other and their young family and develop their own pursuits are all good for mental health. Stepping up at the end of the week to launch the Mental Fitness Charter with the Rugby League was brilliant. Thank you, Prince Harry, for this royal treatment of mental health and fitness!