Former air ambulance pilot Prince William spoke candidly on Tuesday about absorbing the pain and suffering he witnessed on the job.
“I took a lot home without realizing it,” he said at a mental health event in Bristol. “You see [so] many sad things every day that you think life is like that.”
Speaking about his time in the emergency services, he added, “You’re always dealing with despair and sadness and injury. The attrition builds up and you never really have the opportunity to offload anything if you’re not careful.”
The royal dad, 36, opened up as he launched Mental Health at Work, a free U.K.-wide portal for employers and employees that marks another important stride forward in the royals’ ongoing mental health campaign.
Sitting around a table in Yurt Lush café 120 miles west of London, William noted the particular toll on first responders. “You’re human and a lot of people forget the battles, you have shut it off to do the job — but ultimately something pierces the armor.” He noted that he was “stunned” that just 2 percent of people feel comfortable talking to their workplace human resources department about mental health.
Paramedic Dawn Anderson, 45, told him of suffering two episodes in 2011 that she covered up for fear of being told she was incapable of doing her job. She was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.
“He feels like a colleague as well as a leader,” Anderson told PEOPLE. “He is so calm and approachable. He has a real relaxed presence about him. It has been a positive and wonderful experience.
“I’ve always held the belief that everybody is susceptible to mental health problems, and I wouldn’t expect even a member of the royal family to be exempt from that,” she added. “To hear him admit that just goes to prove how good it is to speak about these things and how positive that can be. And it goes towards removing hat stigma about mental health and to speaking up to and owning up to it.”
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Paul Farmer, CEO of U.K. mental health charity Mind, said after William had spoken that there were 100 people per second looking at the Mind site at one point today. “It’s a good sign and tells us here’s a huge need for this area,” he added.
“Half the people at work are living with a mental health problem — either now or it’s in the past,” Farmer said. “This is taking the best of the best that already exists and turns it into something we can mainstream.”
Farmer also remarked on William’s depth of knowledge: “My firm belief is that all of [the royals] and particularly the Duke — in this context — have done a lot of background work and really thought about this issue and their commitment is 100 percent real.
“You heard in his speech talking about his experiences on the frontline. It’s really tough work as an air ambulance and search and rescue pilot. He knows how important this is for people at work. His commitment is constantly enhanced as we go along on this journey.”
The royals’ Heads Together campaign “has always wanted to talk the talk and walk the walk,” says Farmer. “They wanted to show the public commitment to tackling the stigma. We know what a difference that made. But they also wanted to invest in three particular areas — the military, schools and workplaces. And this is the product of that.”
Mind is one of the eight partners of Heads Together, which launched in the spring of 2016.
As the new program kicked off Tuesday, Mind released a survey that showed that poor mental health at work is widespread, with 48 percent of people saying they have experienced a mental health problem in their current job.
“Even small changes to policy, approach and workplace culture can make a really big difference to the mental health of those around us,” said Farmer.