Although many readers may still know him primarily as a TV personality, Dr Alex George is a new kind of altruistic influencer – combining his medical background, social media presence (he currently boasts 2 million followers on Instagram) and lived experience to shape a career in bringing positive change to the mental health space. During his visit to University, on an uncharacteristically warm afternoon in March, Ella Johnson and Iona Wagg sat down to speak to the UK Youth Mental Health Ambassador.
E: What made you want to come to our university today to talk to us about your campaigns?
A: I’m trying my best in my role to work around all the regions in the country. I haven’t been here yet, quite frankly; so I’ve been up to Scotland, I’ve been to Wales and obviously around London as well and it’s important that we get the voices of everyone.
Sometimes I think that politics is guilty of being very London-centric and that’s not right – there’s a huge population that live elsewhere, clearly, who also need to be represented, and so it’s nice to come here and speak to different people.
What is interesting about the University of Leicester is that there’s a very diverse population – I think that half of your students are from ethnic minorities, different minority backgrounds – really, we need to work out a bit more how we access and support those groups; people that we maybe haven’t reached as effectively. That’s what I hear first-hand, and we need to respond to that.
“What is interesting about the University of Leicester is that there’s a very diverse population”
You know, it’s often easier for people to think ‘oh, we think this is a solution for you’ – but what do they think that solution is? ‘You’ve got a broken ankle, this is the expert way of fixing broken ankles‘ – its not as simple as that, its very complex but we need to involve more people in that conversation.
I: Typically in state education, mental health issues such as depression and anxiety aren’t typically talked about – as you are working with the Department of Education, how would you like to change this?
A: So I think that a huge part of our shift needs to be in education in schools. If you look at Wales, they’ve introduced a four purpose approach towards education. Interestingly, wellbeing is one of those [purposes] and it sits as high, or equal to, all of the other parts of the puzzle.
It might seem subtle but that’s a really important thing, because when you evaluate schools and you look at what is provided – the quality of the education provided – it means that sector has to be just as important, and I think in the past that’s not been the case. In my education, I don’t ever remember being taught what mental health was.
In England, they have introduced a new curriculum but we’re waiting, I guess, for that to be fully rolled out and established. My question is: to what extent is wellbeing actually incorporated? When you talk to a lot of charity sectors, NHS sectors, or education experts, what we’re really talking about is a whole school approach. It can’t just be one subject – a bit of teaching, or just one topic – it needs to be introduced in the whole school.
“In my education, I don’t ever remember being taught what mental health was.“
So having mental health leads in schools, first-aid-trained teachers, ambassadors amongst students; you know, some of the most successful schools have tackled the topic of wellbeing by getting the students trained to be wellbeing leads. Again, they understand what [students] are going through and they can be great ambassadors for their own needs.
It’s not so much ‘you have to do this’ but what does your population need, what works best for you, and how do we incorporate that?
There’s a school in Wales that takes kids down to the beach and they go swimming. Clearly you’re not gonna do that here – we’re a long way from the beach – but there are plenty of other things that could be done, looking at ways that actually reflect what the people here actually want. I think that is the change; you can’t be too prescriptive about it.
E: You’re currently serving as the UK Youth Mental Health Ambassador – what do you think the biggest issue there is facing people in education regarding their mental health?
A: There’s a few things I keep hearing: if you look at the number one cause of anxiety for young people, it’s a joint between climate anxiety and financial instability, financial questions, career questions.
I think we’re in the most uncertain times, in terms of careers, ever. In the past, there were worries about careers and jobs as there always have been, but people would go to school and go to university or go straight into a job and they would be in that job for life. But now, yes, there’s lots of opportunities – which is amazing – but also there’s a huge amount of uncertainty which comes with that.
‘I think there’s a huge fear around missed opportunities’
I think, as well, the pressures of academia are probably higher than ever. Interestingly, people talk about the last few years; they haven’t had to do exams, but that’s actually adding pressure for people. What I keep hearing is that, like, ‘well that’s fine, but I’m going to have to do exams at some point, but I’ve not had the preparation.‘ If you think about it, mocks in Year 10, GCSEs – they’re all stepping stones, aren’t they?
I mean you both [Ella and Iona] said that you do masters, and you’ve got to where you are because of all of those steps. I think there’s a huge fear around missed opportunities, and I think that’s a huge worry for students at this time.
I: You met Boris Johnson in February 2021 – what was that like and do you think that he could enact real change in regards to mental health issues?
A: Pretty scary! I mean, getting to meet any prime minister is quite a scary thing to do, especially in that situation – in a role that was new. At the end of the day, I campaigned to make it happen. I actually wanted to campaign just to get him to look at the points, so to have them say “look, you’re actually in the position to work with experts, NHS partners and charities sectors, to actually get a movement made in this space” was amazing.
It’s incredible but there’s also this huge amount of pressure because, all of a sudden, there’s the eyes of the mental health world going – ‘oh who’s this guy? Why is he doing this? Why him?’ and that’s very hard because I’m just a human and I’m doing my best.
I’m not a consultant psychiatrist, I’ve not got a PhD in psychology: I’m just a guy who is a doctor, who’s got a big platform and I’m actually very passionate about this. But once I accepted that, I said ‘you know what? I’m here because I fought hard to be here and I think I can add value’ then I kinda moved on and thought let’s do the best we can do.
Coming into the role, I agreed, well it was agreed, that £79m would be coming to mental health support teams – which is great – and now it’s about actually trying to make sure that the government is looking at this issue and funding it.
If I’m quite honest, the NHS has such a backlog in operations so we’re all fighting for the same pot of money and that’s hard. When you’re in a service that’s being potentially overlooked for a long time, it’s very hard to find the right for that funding, but I’ll keep pushing, I’ll keep trying.
A huge amount of work I can do is in stigma – it’s not all about money and funding – a huge amount is a stigma issue as well. But, at the end of the day, people can ask for help but they need to have the support available when they ask. I think this is going to take a lifetime for me. I don’t think that this is going to be ‘come into a role, and couple of years and we’re out’ – I think it’s going to be a lifetime of campaigning whether I’m in this role or not.
I: What has it been like being on the frontlines during the pandemic and how did this affect your mental health?
A: I worked throughout the whole pandemic, I worked almost every day, and it was very hard. I would say that it was a huge toll because, mentally, I had to accept the fact that I decided to be away from family and friends for that period of time.
Working in a hospital and living on my own [was] a poison that I chose almost, and that was very difficult because my brother, Llŷr, died in that time that I was working – that was very hard because I lost an opportunity to maybe help, to spot problems, or to even be with him.
“I’m not an A&E doctor anymore, but I gave my blood in that pandemic”
So it was a very bittersweet thing and, you know, I’m glad I was there, I saw things that shaped my life that I think… I’m proud that I was there, but it was very difficult as well. I’m not an A&E doctor anymore, but I gave my blood in that pandemic in many ways. I think that chapter in my life – I’m in a new one now, but I am best served in what I’m doing now that I’m not [working] in hospital.
E: One of our student journalists recently covered #PostYourPill – what has the reaction to that campaign been like, and did you anticipate it?
A: I was pretty scared to do it to be honest, because it’s so stigmatised. The reason I was afraid to do it was even more reason to do it – I remember when I was about to take sertraline, with the tablet in my hand, and I thought ‘how’s it come to this?’
‘But no Alex, you’re a flipping ambassador for this thing, and you’re getting scared about doing something that you know…’ If I had a broken leg, I’d take the treatment, have the cast, or I’d have the operation, and it really made me think, no, no, no, no, no I need to do something about this – and that’s why I did the post.
The reaction was absolutely incredible, and it was really inspiring. What I think has been really powerful is seeing the snowball effect – people have just been sharing it. Sportspeople have been doing it, people out in Australia, America posting about it… and the great thing is that they don’t know that it has anything to do with me. That is when you think that the campaign has done really well because it’s become its own thing – it’s so much bigger than that and that’s what I want.
The first of every month I’ll keep posting and I hope people will keep doing it, and every month people message me saying ‘I was going to take my life, or I was at point of… I don’t know what, and now I’ve gone to the doctors – not just for medication, but for getting therapy, and it’s been flagged to my family and friends and now I’m getting the help’ and that’s the point.
It’s not a pro-medication campaign, it’s about anti-stigma. One of the biggest stigmas that still exists in this country is around medication and it’s as simple as that – mental health medication is hugely stigmatised and that has to change.
Iona Wagg is a MA Media, Culture & Society student, and a Media & Communications graduate interested in film, television, music, and the arts. You can find her on LinkedIn or over on Twitter: ionawagg
Ella Johnson is a MA Digital Media & Society student and English graduate, currently acting as LSM President and Lifestyle Editor. She is interested in current affairs and pop culture. Find her on Instagram here.
Feature Image: University of Leicester