Published on October 6th, 2017 | from CAMH
Up close and personal with Prince Harry
By Lori Spadorcia, VP Communications and Partnerships
I have to confess, I’ve been a Royal watcher since I was a kid. I remember my mother waking me up in the early hours of the morning on a beach vacation to witness the wedding of the century. And ever since then, I’ve watched the joy and heartbreak of this extraordinary family.
I wouldn’t call myself a monarchist necessarily – in fact, there is a lot of discomfort with its history and modern existence. However, over the years I’ve been captivated by the emergence of a new generation. Seemingly, as Prince Harry intimated in a recent interview, they are less focused on acquiring titles and more focused on using the positions to make a difference.
It’s hard to be in the mental health sector and not recognize the work of the young royals. Coming from a family that traditionally doesn’t show emotion and is known to be cautious about the issues it decides to take on, speaking about their own lived experience and advocating for mental health is a giant leap.
This brings me to the morning of September 23rd when CAMH welcomed next-gen Royal, Prince Harry, just before he launched his Invictus Games 2017 here in Toronto. Elaborate planning culminated in 90 minutes where some 50 media outlets from the UK and Canada would descend on our historic Queen Street campus. It started with an interview on CP24 in the early hours before the crowds had arrived. In a short clip I conveyed our excitement for the day and most importantly the Prince’s work, along with his brother and sister in law, in opening up the conversation about mental health.
Soon the crowds began to arrive – CAMH staff with their families, Royal watchers, neighbours and mental health advocates. Our grounds were instantly turned into a frenzy of celebration and anticipation. When the motorcade sirens were heard from afar we knew he was on his way – and perfectly on time!
We started by giving him an historical overview of CAMH and then quickly moved into a roundtable discussion with some of our scientific leaders. He listened intently and asked great questions about technology, drug development, novel treatments and the power of collaboration. He paid close attention to Dr. Fang Liu’s discovery of a protein that is leading to a better understanding of PTSD – something that is close to his heart as a veteran himself.
There was no mistaking his emotion in hearing stories throughout the morning about his late mother Princess Diana’s visit to the Addiction Research Foundation 26 years ago. I remember Dr. Stephanie Ameis telling him the story of being a little girl and getting the chance to shake his mother’s hand. He took care to turn back on his way out to shake Stephanie’s hand saying he needed to make sure he did as well since his mother had once. And he was visibly touched by Gloria Chaim’s recollection of his mother’s visit – how she touched young people with addictions at a time when nobody was talking about these issues at all.
A down to earth and engaging Prince spent most of his time talking to the youth with lived experience in the roundtable on children and youth mental health. Asking questions about what supports helped them recover and what types of advocacy were most effective. The importance of peers in the recovery process as well as the value of youth co-creating programs figured prominently.
After the “public” walk along Stokes Street where the enthusiastic cheers, handshakes and photos with the crowd took place, the Prince entered the Irma Brydson In-patient Unit for Youth and a real highlight of the visit. As comfortable as anyone I have ever seen, he met every single youth client and engaged them in a discussion about their fears, hopes and dreams. Some emotional exchanges ensued about the impact of their illnesses on friendships and families, and the difficulties of managing stressful school environments before they got care were balanced with lots of humour as well. It was an honour to see this exchange up close – to see the strong relationships between clients and their clinicians (Jessica, a CYC on the unit with rock star status, was known to the group as Katy Perry and the Prince started to call her that as well). Some of the shy clients were warmed up quickly by the Prince and by the end of the visit were fully engaged. Nobody will forget CYC Robin’s t-shirt especially made for the visit congratulating him on his work to end stigma. I will personally never forget some of the more emotional exchanges, one in particular where the Prince put a hand on a client’s shoulder to ensure she was doing okay while sharing her story.
And just like that, 90 minutes had passed. Homemade banana bread by Robin and Jessica (Robin’s aunt’s recipe!) and the Prince was whisked away by his motorcade. The time seemed to have passed in a flash and yet at moments stood perfectly still.
There is no doubting the authenticity of Prince Harry and his passion for the cause of mental health. His down to earth, informal and engaging conversations during his visit here were amazing. It was an honour to profile our work on that day and most importantly to share with him the courage, hope and determination of our patients and staff. The fact that he chose to visit us was an honour and a testament to that courage and all the work of our staff and those who’ve moved CAMH forward to where we are today.
It’s been over a decade since I’ve personally been on this journey of advocacy for mental health – this was a day that I won’t soon forget.