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Dr. Alex George Tackling Mental Health Stigma

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Although Dr. Alex George modestly suggests he’s “doing OK in life”, most people would think he’s doing considerably better than that.

As well as being a fully-qualified doctor, he rose to fame after appearing on Love Island in 2018, had a book published last year (Live Well Every Day), was appointed the first-ever UK Youth Mental Health Ambassador, and regularly pops up on TV to discuss the topic.

Yet he takes medication for anxiety and is having therapy.

“We all have ups and downs in life, life happens, and it’s about looking after yourself and sometimes realising when you need extra help,” says George, 31.

“I take medication for anxiety, and I’ve been taking that for five or six months. I have therapy as well – I think everyone should have a therapist, it’s really helpful.

“So many people think that if you ‘succumb’ to having medication for mental health, you, therefore, can’t be successful or happy.

But happiness and mental illness are completely separate – they sometimes cross over and are interlinked – but just because you’ve got a mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t be happy, and it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful,” he adds.

“I’m not trying to say I’m ultra-successful, but I do OK in life. And I’m trying to say to people: don’t feel that just because you’re taking medication or whatever, that it means you can’t be a really successful person.”

Determined to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health medication, late last year, George – whose younger brother Llŷr died by suicide in July 2020 – launched an online campaign with the hashtag #PostYourPill, posing for photos with his own anxiety medication.

“I’ve posted my pill,” he says. “It’s all about ending the stigma around treatment. It’s highlighting mental health and mental illness, and why it matters so much and why we need to focus on it.

“There’s so much stigma around pills, medication and therapy. There’s a great deal of shame around admitting you’re taking medication, and what we don’t want is people who need the medication avoiding it because of stigma.”

George has now been Youth Mental Health Ambassador for a year, and says he feels “very honoured and privileged” to be involved.

“I can see from visiting schools and young people how hard things are at the moment,” he says. “And I’m really excited by some of the work we’re doing, and some of the campaigns, not just about service provision but ending stigma.”

George also believes healthy living and maintaining a good routine is interlinked with mental wellbeing. His book, Live Well Every Day, includes seven simple steps to a healthier life – and he tries to practice what he preaches. Right now, he’s talking about oral health.

“It’s great to be in a routine. If I think about times in my life when maybe I’ve let things slip a bit, it’s probably times when I’ve struggled and things have thrown me off-kilter.

It’s an indicator of how people are doing,” he says. “We talk about this with mental health as well – one of the ways to know if someone’s struggling is by looking at their functionality and their ability to do day-to-day tasks, and one of those tasks is brushing your teeth.

“Oral health can be a gateway to other aspects of your health – looking after your teeth and brushing them is about more than just the teeth themselves. Coming out of the pandemic, when people’s routines have been changed so much, it’s important to get back to the routine of brushing your teeth twice a day.

“For me, it’s part of my daily routine – it’s about creating a routine in the morning, and starting your day knowing you’ve done everything you need to. Let’s realign and make sure we’re doing the basics right.

George’s routine also includes walking to work (right now, that means walking to an office 20 minutes from his house) and going to the gym – although he doesn’t work out nearly as much as he did before Love Island. He admits he over-exercised to get his body in tip-top shape for the show, working out for two hours a day for five months.

“I was over-exercising, restricting my diet and avoiding social situations because I was worried about eating,” he admits. “When I look back, I think that was so unhealthy – I wasn’t actually happy, whereas now I think the balance is much, much better.

If a friend says, ‘Do you want to go for lunch?’, I don’t say no because I’m worried about what I’m going to eat, I’ll just adapt my routine around that.

“I absolutely understand the pressure, but ultimately, external validation is very weak at making you feel good in yourself.

Feeling good because you eat well, you exercise well, and fuel your body and use it the way it should be used, that’s much more likely to make you happy, rather than thinking you went to an event and could fit into whatever size T-shirt.

“That’s not to say we don’t enjoy the aesthetic benefits of being healthy, of course, it’s nice if clothes fit well. But that’s a focus point, it’s not the core reason.”

Good health and happiness is all about balance, he says, and while over-exercising isn’t healthy, it’s obviously not good to do too little exercise either.

“It’s important to have an element of rest,” George adds, “so I generally try to plan my exercise routine around the working week, and at the weekend I tend to take it more easy and maybe go for gentle walks.

“Exercise is the same as diet, it’s about balance. My diet isn’t perfect all the time, and I certainly enjoy a takeaway when I want to, but it’s about having a basis around what you’re going to do to ensure you’re getting healthy, nutritious food, and that’s what I try to do.

“Health is about balance and not trying to be too extreme, and building habits that last.”

In the past, George has criticised fat-shaming and weight stigma and admitted that when he’s been bigger he’s felt “embarrassed and nervous” to train in the gym.

But he’s not ashamed anymore, he stresses and explains: “The numbers on scales can be really unhelpful. If you focus on them too much, you become goal-orientated around weight, and I think weight-focused health can be risky at times.

“If you have a well-balanced diet and you exercise regularly in a reasonable fashion, then it’s likely you’ll be a healthy weight.

It’s much better to focus on the process – practising healthy habits, looking after yourself, getting moving, eating a balanced diet – than it is to look at scales and look at number changes.

“Motivation is a very poor thing to rely on when it comes to making changes that last because motivation wanes,” he adds. “You need discipline and routine to make the changes you want.

Making changes that are good for you shouldn’t be horrible and unpleasant, but it doesn’t mean they’re always easy.

It’s important to realise that sometimes you’ve got to put the hard work in to get the benefits out.”