Our day with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

Last Friday, Mental Health Foundation staff had the honour of meeting their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as part of a Royal visit to the city of Dundee.

The Royal couple have made mental health and, in particular, the mental health of children and young people a major priority for their charitable work, and the visit to Dundee was constructed around several engagements on this.

My first reflection on this was that the media and social media narrative around the visit focused on mental health. The fact that there were several engagements with different focuses and participants gave the story legs, and an opportunity for more breadth than normal.

Their Royal Highnesses first visited Dundee Rep Theatre where they met Lee Knifton, Head of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland and Gail Aldam, Manager of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. The festival, led by the Mental Health Foundation, reaches more than 20,000 people at over 300 events each October, and is currently taking place across Scotland.

The Duke and Duchess were particularly interested in the Foundation’s work in the arts and the impact that the Festival has had on mental health stigma, taking the time to listen and ask follow-up questions. As part of the discussion, they also spoke to aerial performers Debbie Robbins and Rachael Macintyre of In Her Shadows, a production exploring a young woman’s relationship with the complexity of her depression, which is touring during the Festival. They listened to Debbie’s story, which inspires the production, and were interested in the complexity of exploring depression through aerial theatre and the impact that that had on both performers.

The couple then took part in a workshop with See Me, Scotland’s national programme to end stigma and discrimination in mental health which is jointly managed by the Mental Health Foundation with SAMH. The couple heard directly from young people who are working with See Me to directly develop the programme work targeted at young people.

At The Corner, a youth health project in Dundee the couple took part in a discussion about legal highs with local young people, before taking part in a workshop with Respect Me, Scotland’s anti-bullying service.

The young people the Duke and Duchess met and talked with were honoured, excited and - especially in the case of those with lived experience - deeply validated by the experience of being able to share their story, and equally importantly their efforts to make a difference with royalty. That’s key in terms of self-stigma and confidence – being able to feel that what you have to say matters.

Lastly, the couple met in private with some of the key organisations in young people’s mental health in Scotland, including the Mental Health Foundation, SAMH, Barnardo’s, Samaritans and NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. We are all working together as members of Young Scotland in Mind and the meeting was an opportunity to emphasise the importance of cross-sector working, raise key points, and hear some of their reflections on the morning.

The conversations were wide ranging, and I spoke directly to their Royal Highnesses about our prevention focus, concentrating on work supporting young people with long-term conditions to better self-manage their mental health, and our focus on addressing and building capacity for digital tools in mental health and self-management through the Aye Mind project in Glasgow.

The Duke and Duchess were very engaged with the subject. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I found were two people with influence, unlike almost anyone else on the planet, who clearly got what we were saying, asked clear and intelligent questions, and had clearly taken in and valued the the young people’s input on the day. We always strive to speak truth to power, and this is always easier when people in power so clearly demonstrate interest.

I left Dundee with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. I felt that the work we do was recognised, and that some of the people we work with felt validated and encouraged.

We strive in the voluntary sector to reach people with our message, to encourage support for our cause from the media and from supporters. For many years it has felt that mental health has been somewhat removed from the high profile that our cause needs if we are to make the changes we need in social justice and equality, to fund and share research, and to make a difference for people like the young people the couple met in Dundee.

On Saturday morning, the visit was in prime position in the Saturday Express, and featured in Hello, Vanity Fair and a range of other publications, royal correspondents reaching audiences that our message normally misses.

The social media feeds on the visit were buzzing not just with what the Duchess was wearing but also with mental health messages, and with input from people with lived experience who felt a little bit stronger and a little bit taller going into the weekend because of the profile the visit raised.

Royal visits may not directly achieve social justice and equity, but in terms of bringing mental health into the forefront of public consciousness, validating people’s efforts, and legitimising in the eyes of some of the hardest-to-reach influencers, they are a useful tool that we, and the other agencies involved on Friday greatly appreciate.