Working with the Princess of Wales
09 February, 2023
RCPsych Registrar Dr Trudi Seneviratne OBE writes about her experiences of working with the Princess of Wales to promote the importance of early childhood.
As a perinatal psychiatrist, I know how crucial the first five years of a child’s life are to their future development and just how easy it can be to overlook the significance of them. That is why I am thrilled that the Princess of Wales has made early childhood development one of her biggest priorities, and is launching a new campaign called 'Shaping Us' which will aim to turn the topic into one of the most important issues of our time.
Her Royal Highness has been working on this campaign for years, building up her knowledge by speaking to experts and visiting children’s centres, schools and various health and other facilities. I remember hearing about her passion for mental health and deciding to write to her for the first time when I was still the Chair of the College’s Perinatal Faculty in 2017.
I am still amazed at how quickly one letter turned into an informal meeting at Kensington Palace which then led to her visiting myself, Professor Carmine Pariante and our colleagues at the lab in King’s College London and another visit to the Channi Kumar Mother and Baby Unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital. From the start of those early days, it was clear how much she valued the efforts of psychiatrists and that she was determined to ground her early years work in science and research.
This was reflected in her decision to appoint eight experts to an Advisory Group for the Centre for Early Childhood that will help steer the efforts of her campaign, ‘Shaping Us’. I was deeply touched to be selected for it alongside my colleague Dr Alain Gregoire, who is the founder and president of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance and a fellow perinatal psychiatrist. The members were chosen from a variety of backgrounds, including neuroscience, psychology, education and social care, but it is a small point of pride for me that two perinatal psychiatrists were selected for it.
We met with the Princess to discuss how we could help guide her early years work at Windsor Castle on Wednesday, 25 January. She already understood that the social and emotional skills children learn during their first five years of life shape who they are as adults, and we talked about the best way to ensure her message reaches every demographic across the UK. On top of helping to raise awareness, the Advisory Group will also help steer the Centre for Early Childhood’s work developing new research and promoting best practice.
After the roundtable, Professor Eamon McCrory and I gave a briefing to some of the celebrity Campaign Champions who are: Fearne Cotton, Giovanna Fletcher, Professor Green, Ugo Monye, Zara McDermott, Jax Jones, Leah Williamson and Drew McFarlane. We discussed how difficult and stressful being a parent is and how unforgiving society can be when we make a mistake. I was touched when Jax Jones spoke about his own difficult experiences growing up and how he felt the need to address those experiences before he could be a parent himself. As a group we talked about how vital it is for parents to look after their own mental health so that they can properly care for their children as well.
The ‘Shaping Us’ campaign was officially launched at an event at BAFTA on Monday, 31 January. It was marked by the premier of a short, animated film which follows a child, called Layla, going through pregnancy, growing into a baby and developing into a young child. The Claymation highlights the emotional nourishment that babies require when they are learning to manage their emotions and depicts Layla’s parents teaching her how to walk as a toddler and comforting her when she meets other children for the first time.
I had been given the opportunity to help shape the content of this film and was pleased to see it focused on the importance of the brain, which grows faster during the first five years of our lives than at any other point. This activity was beautifully represented by a range of colours in the film and showed that children are beginning to experience new emotions and learning how to build new relationships from the moment they are born.
Many scientists, advisers and celebrities attended the launch event, and I was pleased to be able to catch-up with Zara McDermott and her mother following our initial meeting at Windsor Castle the week before. She told me how fortunate she felt to have a strong relationship with her mum early on in life but that she had still had difficulty with revenge porn during her teenage and later years. I appreciated the opportunity to have an open discussion about such an important topic and how we might raise awareness about the potential dangers of social media in our future efforts.
The highlight of the night was undoubtedly the Princess’s speech in which she reiterated her commitment to ensuring all children are given the chance to lead happy and healthy lives. Many parents believe that by feeding and clothing their child they are taking care of all their needs, but it is equally important to build positive, nurturing relationships and to support their social and emotional development as well.
It’s essential that we as a society, whether we are parents or not, now seize this opportunity to come together and recognise the critical importance of those early years. All of us have a role to play in laying the foundation for our children’s futures.
The government must also do their part by buying into this ambitious programme and ensuring its long-term success regardless of changes in leadership. It is vital that policy is embedded in education and healthcare, but far too often new projects are cut short without being given the proper time to grow and expand. That’s not good enough for our children.
I can think of no better person to entrust the hopes of the next generation to than the Princess of Wales. I am certain she will be as equally committed to this campaign ten years from now as she is today – this is a lifetime piece of work for her.
The Advisory Group members are:
- Professor Peter Fonagy OBE, Head of the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at UCL and Chief Executive of the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families
- Eamon McCrory, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience and Psychopathology, University College London
- Dr Alain Gregoire, Consultant Perinatal Psychiatrist and President and Founder of the Maternal Mental Health Alliance
- Dr Trudi Seneviratne, Registrar at the Royal College of Psychiatrists
- Ed Vainker OBE, co-founder of Reach Academy Feltham, • Carey Oppenheim, Project Lead at the Nuffield Foundation
- Imran Hussain, Director of Policy and Campaigns for Action for Children
- Beverley Barnett-Jones MBE, Associate Director at Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and Trustee at What Works in Children’s Social Care.