The name Dr Alex George is one that many people our age seem to associate with the reality TV show, Love Island. Me, not being an avid viewer of the show, I first came across Alex’s work during the Covid-19 pandemic – a time that in many ways redefined the public perception of mental health.
As explicitly mentioned in this interview, in July 2020, Alex’s younger brother, Llŷr, died by suicide. Alex, a former GP, has since used his platform and large social media following to raise awareness about mental health. In January 2021, Alex launched a campaign directed at the UK Government to prioritise mental health amongst young people. On 3 February that same year, Alex was appointed as the UK Ambassador for Mental Health by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Amidst The Boar’s coverage of the 2023 Cheltenham Literature Festival, I sat down with Alex to discuss mental health, student life, and the release of his latest book, The Mind Manual.
It’s not being pro-medication – it’s actually being anti-stigma
Dr Alex George
You started the popular #postyourpill, which is all about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. When you first started that, what reaction did you get? I believe this time last year, a TikTok video containing the hashtag got taken down. How did you feel when you saw that?
“I started #postyourpill as a reflection of when I first started taking antidepressants. I had the pill in my hand and looked down and thought: ‘Gosh, is this where I’m at?’ There was a degree of shame around it, and I thought, hang on, that’s not right.”
Alex said he wanted to use his experience positively and came up with the idea of sharing it as a social media post. His friends suggested coming up with a hashtag to help raise awareness about taking medication and antidepressants.
He stressed: “It’s not being pro-medication – it’s actually being anti-stigma. It’s the idea that if you need help, you should have access to that without shame. Taking medication should be a decision between you and your doctor, the pros and the cons, not whether you feel ashamed or not. That’s what it comes down to.”
Speaking of the reaction online, Alex said: “The reason I felt why it became quite viral is because people related to it (the shame and stigma). It was just incredible, to be honest. It’s something that really helped me at a difficult time. Taking mental health medication is tough, and you’re right, TikTok did take a video down. They did reinstate it, but it was pulled down because the algorithms picked it up as offensive. We need to make sure we’re not preventing the voices of people who are sharing stuff that needs to be talked about. Stigma exists because we allow harmful narratives to run without challenging or replacing them.”
Alex wanted to really challenge the stigma and labels surrounding medication and antidepressants, adding: “You as a person are who you are. It’s not a case of being a ‘depressed patient’ or a ‘bipolar patient’. No, you’re a person who has that. You’re a person first, and your diagnosis comes later.”
A lot of what you do is about raising awareness, and I wanted to talk about sport. I understand you’re a Manchester United fan.
Me being an ardent Liverpool fan, we laughed off the Liverpool-Man United rivalry here. “It’s all fun and banter”, joked Alex.
What are your thoughts on using sport as a platform for raising awareness for mental health? We’ve seen big figures like Tyson Fury becoming very outspoken about it. The Premier League has worked with the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) in the past. What is your stance regarding sport as a platform for mental health, and can it be doing more as a collective unit to raise awareness?
“Firstly, I must stress that sport and exercise are absolutely incredible for your mental health. It’s a superpower for looking after everything. Whether it’s at a high level or more locally, we should use it as a chance to talk about these things. You mentioned Tyson Fury who has done a brilliant job at bringing bipolar disorder, depression, and ADHD to the forefront in what is seen as a very ‘masculine’ and ‘tough’ sport. It’s a brilliant thing to be seeing.”
Alex said that he finds it “inspiring” to see mental health being brought up in sports like boxing, rugby, and football. He’d “absolutely encourage” more people to use sport as a platform for raising awareness, adding: “It makes you feel that it’s not just you. It shows you can be successful and have things that you struggle with.”
After Alex mentioned that “we can be very hard on ourselves and believe we can take on anything”, we naturally, both interviewer and interviewee, began to open up about our experiences dealing with mental health.
A couple of years ago, I had a downward spiral and was in a very difficult place. I was set on going to Oxford, and to me, everything else was rubbish. I want to be a journalist in the future …
“But you are a journalist”. said Alex. “Change that. You are a journalist. You’re doing journalism right now.”
I laughed it off, although I had never really looked at it like that before.
The whole idea is to do a similar thing to yourself. I want to build a platform and turn the negatives into something positive. This very interview is me doing just that, and I don’t think this would be happening right now without having been at rock bottom a couple of years ago. It’s the bad stuff that has moulded me, and I feel that’s the same with your journey too.
You take ownership of the things you can control, and you let go of the things you can’t
Dr Alex George
“Thank you so much for sharing that. I think you’re right – if you were to change your past, you wouldn’t be where you’re at now, and that is very difficult to grasp at times. This is very deep in a sense, but with my brother, selfishly, I’d do anything to have him back. But then having him back would mean however many people, through hearing his story and the campaigns, are still here with us now who maybe wouldn’t be. You never wish yourself suffering, but ultimately it is that which moulds you. I go through hard times even now, even very recently, where it’s hard to see positively. But I know the better times do come.”
He stopped to point to a tattoo on his wrist which reads: “This too shall pass”.
“That’s something I keep looking back to, often over and over again, so my brain really sinks into it. It’s true. Life is neither good nor bad. It’s life and it is encompassing of all of it. It’s only when you stop fighting that and trying to take responsibility for everything that happens, you start realising that life actually happens to you to an extent. Life happens to you, and all you can control is your action and reaction. You take ownership of the things you can control, and you let go of the things you can’t. I like to call it the sphere of influence, and that’s something I explore in The Mind Manual too.”
One thing that The Mind Manual mentions so early on is the role of schools. You say we are not taught enough “mental fitness”. Could you elaborate a little more on that? During my rough patch, I was advised to get help from my school. I tried using the NHS, but as you know waiting lists are through the roof, and it’s rather inaccessible. What would your ideal setup be regarding mental health in schools?
“Learning life skills, even things like finances – the number one cause of stress in adulthood is finances. We need to learn about that in school. Financial health is actually a topic – it’s a real thing which even I didn’t know until a couple of years ago. Fundamentally, schools should build emotional literacy from a young age, resilience training, [and] mental fitness training. That’s partly through classroom activities and partly through what the school’s structure is. We need to get in early and give them the support they need.
We need to be able to say ‘no’ and mean that, safeguarding our own decision-making
Dr Alex George
“When I became Mental Health Ambassador, I managed to get £80 million towards mental health support teams. They’re now in half the country (in England), but they need to be in every school. That will allow the intervention of educational-based psychology. I’ve been working on early support hubs too, which means giving under-25s access to the support they need, which is vital. To young people, we also need to emphasise opportunities for connection.”
To wrap up the interview, I asked Alex:
Your book mentions “the nothing of saying no”: the idea of saying “no” and meaning it. Many students at Warwick experience a fear of missing out. What would you say to students who are perhaps struggling to say no and feel the need to do everything they can, even if they don’t necessarily want to?
“I think boundaries are so important. We need to be able to say ‘no’ and mean that, safeguarding our own decision-making. I often say if someone asks you to get involved with something, ask yourself: A) do I really want to do this? and B) do I have the capacity to do it? Unless you can say yes to both of those things, your answer should be no. And stick with that. Create space for yourself, and no means no.”
If you are in any way affected by the issues raised in this interview, the University of Warwick offers mental health support. Students can contact the University’s Wellbeing Support Services, their personal tutor, or the Students’ Union online Advice Centre.
Students can also contact Nightline between 9pm–9am on weekdays, and 9pm–1am on weekends.