By Mary Giliberti, J.D.
There is no greater way to have an impact on people who have been treated poorly by society than by showing and spreading compassion to those who truly need it. I can think of no better example of someone who embodied this principle than Princess Diana. She was a leader who proved to the world that kindness can change perceptions and improve lives. She once stated: “Two things stand like a stone. Kindness in another’s trouble, and courage in your own.” This was how she lived her life: showing compelling kindness towards those society had cast aside.
The world watched in awe as she held the hand of a dying AIDS patient, at a time when many believed the illness could be transferred through touch. We came to find out that her kindness was wrapped in empathy, as the People’s Princess became the first person in the Royal Family to talk openly about her struggles with mental illness, despite societal stigma.
Princess Diana lived with anxiety, bulimia and postpartum depression. In recently uncovered interviews, she talks about her lowest point where she considered self-harm and experienced suicidal thoughts. These challenges fueled her desire to use her position to help those who were struggling. She said in a 1995 interview, “I think the biggest disease this world suffers from in this day and age is the disease of people feeling unloved.” Her own experiences fueled her empathy and through her warmth, kindness and bravery, she helped reduce the stigma on many issues, including mental illness.
This message is particularly meaningful for the mental health community and NAMI because our members use their personal stories to accomplish our collective work of providing support and education and fighting stigma. As we do this work, we find that the legacy of Diana is continuing to help those who struggle with mental illness.
Diana’s legacy of kindness is also continued through her two sons and daughter-in-law, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (William and Kate) and Prince Harry of Wales, who hold a similar spirit of advocacy.
William, Harry and Kate were each originally working with different causes—addiction, veterans, bereavement—and realized that mental health is a common thread between the causes. So, they founded Heads Together, a campaign aimed at opening the conversation about mental health, tackling stigma and providing help for people with mental health challenges.
In a video reflecting on the growth of Heads Together, the trio talk about why it’s so important to talk about mental health and seek help when you need it. Harry recently shared that he has been seeing a mental health professional in order to cope with the unresolved grief he’d been carrying for 20 years. It’s this type of honesty and bravery that can change the way people think about mental health. And it’s the exact type of honesty and bravery his mother taught him—using your own struggles as a drive and platform to help others and, hopefully, overcome stigma.
While these members of the Royal Family have a large audience for their positive example, you can make an impact too. It doesn’t matter how many people see an act of kindness, but rather how many people embrace kindness into their daily lives. Collective compassion is what society needs to break down stigma and improve the lives of people with mental illness and their families.
Since William, Harry and Kate have been speaking out about mental health, the acceptance of these issues has changed substantially. They have the platform to affect public attitudes and increase willingness to get help. For those of us who have been mental health advocates for many years, we now feel a new understanding of mental illness as a significant public health issue that deserves increased attention and resources.
Princess Diana once said, “Carry out a random act of kindness with no expectation of reward, safe in the knowledge that one day someone might do the same for you.” Let’s all reflect on this message today, August 31, the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s passing, as we thank her for all she’s done and all she continues to inspire others to do.
Mary Giliberti is CEO of NAMI.
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