Last week Kate Middleton released a video where, looking directly into the camera and wearing a patterned blouse, she gave a short speech touting a brand-new patronage, the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, a charity that provides services to women and families affected by perinatal mental illness. Though the organization helps the type of cause that often draws royal support, she used the speech to explain its role in her master plan to transform early childhood education and mental health in Britain.
“The past couple of years have reminded us just how much we need each other and how vital our relationships are to our long-term health and happiness,” she said. “This starts in the very earliest years of our lives, when we need close and continuous care from the people around us to nurture our development and ensure that we get the right start in life.”
In discussing perinatal depression and anxiety, she was simultaneously forthright and reassuring. “But we all know that pregnancy, childbirth, and the first months and years of a child’s life can be hugely demanding. Parents often feel lonely and overwhelmed by these early years. Around 20% of women in the U.K. are reported to experience perinatal mental illness. Sadly, we also know that many more are suffering in silence. No one is immune to experiencing anxiety and depression during this time.”
Because Kate is a mother herself and so clearly comfortable with children—she and Prince William have a running joke that she gets “broody” at events where she holds infants—it often gets lost that the duchess’s interest in this is very scientific. That statistic about the prevalence of mental illness during and after pregnancy comes from the NHS, but it was discussed extensively in a June 2021 report from the Royal Foundation Centre for Early Childhood, which Kate founded last year.
The report, which is a fascinating read, lays out a credible plan for changing Britain’s approach to early childhood by raising awareness, building a mentally healthier society, and supporting parents and childcare workers. From her new patronage to her appearance on the BBC Children’s show Bedtime Stories in February, Kate is trying to drive home the fact that the first five years of life are decisive for a child’s development and that parental well-being can affect a child’s emotional state. Throughout the reports that the Royal Foundation has released on the subject, the organization has established itself as being “informed by the data” and focused on spreading the scientific consensus that crucial brain development happens in infancy, with major consequences for a child’s—and a society’s—future. Without breaking a sweat, Kate has spent the last few years becoming the world’s most visible spokesperson for developmental neurology.
When Kate first joined the family in 2011, this wasn’t an inevitable outcome. At first she took her time to develop a full program as a working royal. She and William were living in Wales, far from the palace, and in just under seven months, she had 34 official engagements listed on the Court Circular. In January 2012, the palace announced that Kate had taken on four charity patronages, and she also gave her first public speech in March of that year. The four patronages—Action on Addiction, East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices, children’s art nonprofit the Art Room, and London’s National Portrait Gallery—were announced with a studiously nondescript palace comment that the choices complemented her husband’s charitable interests and reflected her own passion for the arts and “supporting people who are in need.” (It also announced that she would spend time volunteering with the Scout Association’s programs “as opportunity arises.”)
Over the next few years, Kate steadily built up her public schedule and expanded her family as she continued to make headlines for her style. In 2016 she made her first major splash on the issue of mental health when she joined with William and Prince Harry to launch Heads Together, an initiative that tackled mental health stigma, but it wasn’t until a year later that we realized how pivotal Kate had been to the effort. In an October 2017 speech, William credited her for the observation that mental health was the umbrella issue that united many of their charitable concerns.
“It was Catherine who first realized that all three of us were working on mental health in our individual areas of focus,” he said at a Heads Together reception for World Mental Health Day. “She had seen that at the core of adult issues like addiction and family breakdown, unresolved childhood mental health issues were often part of the problem.”