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Grief, loss and the ‘normalising’ of mental health

It’s good to talk, and it’s good that we are talking more about mental health, especially when loss is all around us. People have lost jobs, friends, freedom, experiences, and loved ones. Loss is inescapable but magnified by the prism of Covid-19. Loss, when and how it strikes, affects us all in different ways. 

I lost my father during the pandemic. That was a profound and traumatic bereavement. Consequently, my mother is selling the family home, which is a less traumatic but still emotionally challenging loss. These incidents made me think again about how we deal with mental health and, in particular, depression. It’s especially topical with people like Prince Harry and Oprah Winfrey championing and trying to “normalise” the consequences of loss.

For some people, a house is just bricks and mortar, and when it’s time to sell, the decision is strictly transactional. For others, like myself, it’s a huge, emotional wrench. Loss should cause grief; depression is part of the grief process; if it becomes paralysing and you can’t return to a more balanced state, that’s a problem.

But what does it mean to be depressed, a term we throw around casually? Mental health is like the sea, and occasionally you get capsized. I was profoundly shocked by my father’s death and, later, depressed. Now, with the sale of the house, I am sad about closing one chapter and starting a new one. Feeling depressed or sad are all part and parcel of life. I felt sad, which is normal. Not feeling sad about the house or depressed about my father would be abnormal.

I started thinking more about this when I saw Oprah on TV, claiming that she and Harry would “normalise” mental health. As my father was a psychiatrist, mental health has always seemed quite normal to me. Does it need to be normalised? And, what is “normal” anyway?

For that matter, what do we mean by mental health, which we talk about without defining it? Losing my father made me depressed. We can’t always be happy, and loss should cause grief. Even the loss of our house makes me sad. This is normal. But never being sad would be abnormal. There are, then, mental health conditions that are “normal”.

Mental health covers a vast spectrum from sadness, which is normal, to schizophrenia and other conditions that need to be dealt with by professionals. By getting caught up in the hype, we denigrate the seriousness of genuine mental health illness. Mental health is a vast and very complex area of medicine. We can’t simplify it or fit an entire body of medicine into soundbites. 

We talk about mental health, and some of it is a truly debilitating chronic illness. Some altered mental states, like situational depression, are a normal reaction. Often we can grow and learn. It always requires time and sometimes needs support.

It’s perplexing that Harry couldn’t get Meghan help when she was suicidal. How difficult is it to call the Samaritans or for someone as well connected as Harry to find help? With royal connections to psychiatric professionals, he could have quickly solved the problem. And equally strange that Oprah never followed up on why that was the case in her famous interview with Harry and his wife.

Acknowledging the importance of mental health is hugely important, at the very least, so that people are not stigmatised. For some, though, it is and will remain a private affair. Grief, bereavement and loss are traumatic; not everyone wants to share them, especially not in public. Harry and Oprah may be good champions, but raising awareness is different to saying they’re going to fix it. The heavy lifting lies, not with royalty — not even the TV kind — but with the professionals. Otherwise, talking about mental health isn’t brave or even useful. It’s just entertainment.