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A watershed moment

Prince Harry’s opening up about his struggles with mental health has done good in helping people to talk about the issues. But how helpful is the advice that is often given out? By Stephen Nicholls

Just before the news of the snap general election broke last week, the headline news was Prince Harry who has ‘come out’ about his mental health issues when struggling with losing his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, so tragically at the tender age of 12. The i newspaper headlined ‘Harry’s revelations set mental health hotlines ringing’.  The Daily Telegraph devoted five pages to an exclusive interview with the prince describing the interview as a “watershed moment” for mental health. The president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Professor Sir Simon Wesley, praised the prince for discussing so openly the impact of the death of his mother on his mental health. He calls him “an incredibly powerful role model”, adding: “In just 25 minutes he has achieved more good than I have in 25 years”.

This is all very good as far as it goes goes and anything which helps to remove the stigma of mental illness has got be a good thing. But Prince Harry also seems to blame his struggles with grief for his notoriously wild and unruly living in his twenties, describing it as two years of ‘total chaos’. Is he right to characterise this behaviour as part of a ‘mental health problem’?

Is our behaviour the result of our experiences?

In his outstanding article ‘The Ambiguously Cured Soul’, David Powlison engages with this modern idea that much of our errant behaviour is dictated by difficult life experiences as we grow up and live in a fallen and broken world. Powlison uses a case study of a girl he calls Amelia, who struggled with lesbian desires which left her feeling shamed and isolated. She describes her experience of being counselled in a very positive way.

‘So what happened? My therapist accepted me. That allayed my anxieties. As we worked in counselling over the next year and a half, he helped me to understand the reasons for my lesbian attraction. My father had been an alcoholic. When I was a child he beat me often, and sometimes sexually molested me. His anger scared me—it still does. I learned never to trust men, and to look towards women for love. But my mum was mostly helpless and passive through it all, preoccupied with her own troubles. She could never really protect or comfort me. So I spent my life trying to meet my need for love that no one had ever met. That parental combination made me hungry for an intimate, accepting relationship with a woman, a “precious friend” who’d fill the empty space inside… Counselling taught me a perspective on my past, to see how the pain and disappointment of my family upbringing produced my struggles with lesbian fantasy.’

Powlinson engages with this counselling approach.

Applying Scripture

‘How should we evaluate the interpretation that Amelia has been taught to read into her life? When we look at both Scripture and lives lived, it is clear that painful life experiences never determine why people think, want, and behave the ways they do. Temptations and trials do not pattern our sins or make our hearts empty. Instead, the past (like both the present and the anticipated future) offers contexts where, when, and with whom the active, wilful heart reveals and expresses itself.’

Powlison’s article is much more nuanced and in depth than my brief quotes from it and he is very clear that Amelia has been helped through her counsellor but believes that the ‘interpretive grid’ that was given to her is based more on ‘syncretistic psychology’ than Biblical truth.

Taking responsibility

We can be thankful that Prince Harry has been helped to come to terms with the traumatic experience of losing his mother at the age of 12. The whole dysfunction of his family life during his formative years must have had a negative impact on him. But like all sinners, Prince Harry needs the kind of counsel Powlison advocates where we are brought to face up to and take responsibility for our sinful behaviour; repent and find forgiveness, healing, acceptance in Christ.

David Powlison concludes his article …

‘The cultural apologetic paints broad strokes in the background, but both preaching and counselling must also do personal apologetics. They must reach into the details of lives lived in the foreground. They must reach Amelia—and her counsellor. May Christ make us, each and all, increasingly clear and unambiguous as we grow up in His image!’

If you want to read the full article and get Dr. Powlison’s view of what Amelia’s fundamental heart problem is, you can find it here or you can buy the excellent book that the article is from –  ‘Seeing with New Eyes’ here.

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