His Royal Highness Prince Harry is an advocate for mental health. He is making 2017 the year of the mental health marathon in the UK and will be in Toronto this fall to lead the Invictus Games, focusing attention on mental health issues faced by soldiers. As CAMH prepares to celebrate people who’ve made a difference for mental health as part of Canada’s 150th birthday, we remember a special visit to CAMH by Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, just over 25 years ago.
TORONTO, March 9, 2017 - For staff, patients, family and friends who gathered at 33 Russell Street on October 25th, 1991, it was a CAMH fairy-tale moment.
With the AIDs crisis in full swing, the Princess of Wales, Diana, had taken time during her Toronto royal tour to visit patients at the HIV/AIDs hospice, Casey House.
For her next stop that day, she wanted to meet young people confronting drug addiction – some of whom faced the extra threat of HIV infection from injection drug use.
Diana signs the guest book at the Addiction Research Foundation. The ARF merged into CAMH in 1998.
Neither cause was particularly fashionable at the time. In fact, some people would not go near a person who had HIV or used drugs, let alone hold their hand, ask them how they were doing, and listen to their story.
But this Princess had compassion and courage, and the conviction to go ahead of the curve on critical social issues of her time.
On that warm October day in 1991, Diana arrived at the Addiction Research Foundation (ARF) in Toronto (later, part of CAMH) to meet patients at the Young Drug Users Program (YDUP). A crowd of staff, family and friends had gathered in a gentle rain on the large terrace at the Russell Street front entrance. They were joined by some curious onlookers from the University of Toronto. A small motorcade of five or six sedans arrived. The door of one opened, and the tall and striking Princess, dressed in a classic cream jacket with black skirt, strode up the steps to greet her well-wishers.
“She really put all of us at ease:” CAMH’s Gloria Chaim.
“I was waiting to greet her at our program at Russell Street,” recalls CAMH’s Gloria Chaim, who was Supervisor of YDUP at that time and now helps lead CAMH’s McCain Centre. Staff had been briefed on the elaborate protocol and security surrounding a royal visit. “I remember we were all quite nervous – I think I was wearing a dress, maybe even a hat, and I was thinking about the etiquette we were instructed to follow when she arrived.”
Her openness and interest in people put our patients at ease
“I do remember her warm smile when I greeted her and took her to meet a dozen of our young clients. She told me that she wanted to be alone with them, so I showed her into the group room.”
Diana’s entourage and security people waited while she spent time talking to the young people in the clinic’s group room.
“They absolutely loved it,” Gloria recalls. “The occasion was a bit intimidating for everyone at first, but her smile, openness and interest in people really put all of us at ease. When she sat down with our young clients, asked them about the program, and about how they were doing – they told me they felt she really cared and listened to them.”
One young client clutched her arm
As Diana left the program, one young female client clutched her arm.
“This young person had been a bit aggressive and acting out leading up to the visit,” recalls CAMH’s Supply Chain Manager David Bayley, who worked in ARF Stores then. He was on hand on that day as an ARF ambassador and an extra set of eyes to assist the RCMP with security for the visit.
“But when Diana arrived, this agitated teenaged client was suddenly like a young girl opening presents on Christmas Day. She was in awe.”
After meeting with Diana in the group room, the client didn’t want to let her go. She was hanging on to Diana’s arm as they walked back down the hall to the elevator. “I could tell that the security people were a bit worried – but Diana was having a very animated face-to-face conversation with this young woman.” Diana continued to speak with her and hold her hand as they walked all the way back to the elevator.
David Bayley remembers Princess Diana’s conversation with a young patient
Diana received flowers from some young well-wishers at the ARF entrance, then left to continue her Toronto tour.
“I’ve often wondered about the impact of that moment on the girl,” says David. “It was such a sweet moment.”
Diana accepts flowers from a young well-wisher at the entrance to the Addiction Research Foundation. Photo from Inside, the employee publication of ARF.
Diana meets an AIDS patient in London in 1987. (Photo: CBS)
Diana continued her advocacy on HIV and addiction until her tragic death in August, 1997. In an era when patients confronting these issues were shunned, Diana was their champion.
Her son, Prince Harry, continues the fight on causes including mental health and AIDs.
This fall, Harry will visit Toronto during the Invictus games, where wounded veterans from 15 nations will compete from September 23 to 30. The Paralympic-style games created by Harry, whose own previous military career included service in Afghanistan, focus attention on related mental health issues for soldiers including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
He has also been a key player in Heads Together – working with his brother William and sister-in-law Kate -- the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge -- to Eliminate Stigma around Mental Health. At a recent talk, Prince Harry urged people to start conversations about mental health with their family, friends and colleagues. No-one is invincible, he said. By working together and talking about mental health, we can end stigma and help people recover. Watch Prince Harry’s speech on mental health.
As Prince Harry and other new leaders emerge to advocate for mental health, CAMH warmly remembers that fairy-tale moment -- a quarter of a century ago -- when Princess Diana showed her leadership, and held our patients’ hands.