I should have known. The last time the Heads Together Press Officer invited me to to an event I was ambushed by three royals. It was straight out of the pantomime manual book – ‘he’s behind you’ was the look on fellow presenter, Sian Williams’ face as I spoke to her. I turned around, the Duke of Cambridge said, “Hello Sean, why are you running the London Marathon?” As the words of my reply came out of my mouth I wanted to catch them and put them back in it.
“My son has OCD,” I said.
I felt vulnerable and exposed because up until that moment my wife and I had only talked about Reuben’s mental health issues to our closest friends and family. But sometimes the best things in life are unplanned. The conversation that followed with Prince William was certainly one of the best things I’ve done in our family’s battle against Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was essentially two dads chatting about their kids. But it was also my chance to beat the parental stigma surrounding mental health – that feeling of judgement because your child is mentally ill. The OCD was so debilitating for Reuben he missed a year of school and spent six months in hospital, but I had instinctively covered it up as best I could to protect him, and us.
To be caught out once can be viewed as a mistake. To be caught out twice is foolish, but that’s exactly what happened last month, when I was ambushed by the royals again. I was invited to be on a panel organised by the mental health charity Heads Together, at the Royal Foundation 2018 launch in the City of London. Mental health campaigner and Telegraph journalist, Bryony Gordon, was the chairperson, and I calculated that if the two of us were asked to contribute it must be a low-key occasion. As I arrived at the venue I noticed a police convoy around the back of the building, surrounded by a throng of reporters. There was a police van not dissimilar to the type that transports the accused to court, so I guessed some high profile prisoner was in the area. It seemed odd though as the High Court is a mile or two west from where I was. But I didn’t give it another thought.
If that wasn’t enough I should have guessed when the checks and searches to get into the building were one step away from a strip search.
Once inside I sat down, made myself comfortable, and looked at the Royal Foundation booklet I’d picked up on the way in. Bizarrely, I was on the front page with William, Prince Harry and the Duchess of Cambridge. That’s when I twigged – this was a bigger occasion than I had prepared for. And that’s when they walked in. Four royals this time, with Meghan Markle completing the line up. I should have known. The police convoy, the world’s media, and above all their continued commitment to raising mental health awareness through Heads Together. Of course they were going to be there.
Unlike the previous meeting, I had a bit more time to gather my thoughts as they opened the event by speaking passionately to the audience about their ambitions to make a difference for young people, conservation, the armed forces and mental health – the Royal Foundation ambitions.
Our panel followed, looking back at an incredible year for Heads Together and what is planned for the future. I relayed my ‘Prince WIlliam ambush’ story to all four royals in the front row of the audience. I also gave an account of what it’s like bringing a child up with an extreme mental health issue.
After the panel discussion, Harry and Meghan chatted to me about ‘that hug’ before last year’s London Marathon. She laughed. He laughed, awkwardly. She may have been heavily pregnant, but Kate clearly had room for a fire in her belly about mental health. She told me she wanted to help all parents become ‘wellbeing literate’ for themselves and their children. And later I spoke to William, who saw the funny and serious side to his ‘ambush’, and the effect it had on Reuben and our family.
They have done fantastic work using their profile to put mental health at the forefront of the news agenda, but the real work takes place on the coalface and at the grassroots, in the families of sufferers and during therapy. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder dragged our family through hell. But since speaking out I’ve learnt we are not alone. So many parents are in despair as their child struggles with a mental health issue.
As parents we protect our kids. If your child is acting differently to others, your natural instinct is to cover it up, make excuses or hide them away. You would prefer something bad to happen to you, because you can handle the knocks. Your child is so young, unprepared and immature. How can they cope?
Depending on your child’s age, you should take their lead or listen to their opinion, but on the whole by opening up and talking about it, it feels better. Fighting the mental health battle alone is a huge and often impossible task. Opening up and sharing the battle with others makes it far more manageable. And you’ll probably find more people than you think are struggling with issues themselves.
Helping young people battling mental health issues and parents struggling with the stigma is very important to me. That’s why I’m running the London Marathon for the youth mental health charity YoungMinds, who are doing amazing work everyday for young people. I’d love it if you can sponsor me: https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-display/showROFundraiserPage?userUrl=SeanFletcher&pageUrl=3