“Mental health can be such an unsexy subject,” says Alex George. This is the message that the A&E doctor and former Love Island contestant will “really try to get across” in his new job as the government’s youth mental health ambassador. He doesn’t mean that the job is to add sex appeal, although he has 1.8m followers on Instagram, people call the hospital where he works to ask if “Dr Alex” is on duty, and, in the first lockdown, he taped a topless shot from his Love Island days to the chest of his PPE.
What he means is that he wants to make mental health a positive issue. He is irked that every time he asks children: “When I say ‘physical health’, what words come to mind?”, they mention such things as exercise, running and Joe Wicks. “But if you say: ‘What’s mental health?’ they go: ‘Depression, anxiety, sadness.’”
“Actually,” George says, “mental health can be resilience, it could be happiness, it could be courage.” We are speaking on a video call, and I’m sure it could be “Dr Alex”, too: he blends Wicks’s populism with the soul of the TV choirmaster Gareth Malone.
In some ways, George might seem an unlikely advocate. He has not practised in a mental health department and, at 30 and fresh-faced, he appears a little short on first-hand knowledge. But ever since he left Love Island in 2018, he has used his growing platform to advocate better mental healthcare. Alarmed by the spike in suicides among university students, he even met the then prime minister, Theresa May, at Downing Street. “I was like: ‘We have to act – we can’t ignore this,’” he says. “Sadly, it wasn’t met with the enthusiasm I’d like.”
Then the pandemic hit, and in July last year, George acquired the kind of personal insight no one would ever want when his 19-year-old brother Llŷr killed himself. Llŷr had been offered a place at medical school. His brother’s death, says George, “was a matchstick” to his own passion for mental wellbeing and his campaign spread with a new intensity. In January, he posted on Instagram asking to meet with Boris Johnson; one month later, he was offered the ambassador role.
“You know, my brother took his life without telling anyone. Why? Because I think he probably felt ashamed that he felt that way. If he’d asked for help, would he still be alive? Maybe,” he says. So now George has the official (unpaid) ambassador position, and a seat on the Mental Health in Education Action Group. All this while handling his own grief, alongside the emotional and psychological challenge of being an A&E doctor in a pandemic. How ever will he cope?
“I’ve seen so many deaths,” he says. “It’s part and parcel of my job.” He has a doctorly lack of squeamishness when he speaks of death, despite the devastation of his own recent experience. But nothing had prepared him for the scale of this pandemic – nor the emotional distancing. “It’s a strange normalisation of death,” he says. “Which isn’t normal. You see so much of it, you almost become numb to it. Like shock.”
How painfully his own brother’s death must have pierced this desensitisation; a horrific, personal counterpoint. No wonder George is keenly aware that when children finally return to school, many will do so having had their own brutal experiences, which they should not be expected to set aside. “Children see and hear the same things we see and hear,” he says. “There’s no hiding in the modern world from those things. But how do you manage that?”
Well, quite. How will he manage it? He mentions May’s promise in 2018 that every school in England would have a mental health lead – a trained member of staff who is responsible for the school’s approach to the issue. “At the moment, they are only going to hit 25% by 2023,” George says. He wants to push for ringfenced funding so the mental health leads “happen sooner”, and to speed up the provision of online counsellors for children. He wants emotional wellbeing lessons to be “equivalent” in the curriculum to maths and English. And he is concerned about university students: “Are they receiving what they are paying for? Are they getting the support they need?”
George is clearly in a hurry because he says all this so quickly that half his sentences disappear before they are out. I think this is partly because he feels great urgency to act and bring about change, and partly because he thrives on having more to do than he has time for. He routinely works 14-hour days. He even volunteered to work in A&E on Christmas Day, “just to help out and be with other people and feel that I was doing something”. His brother had died only five months previously. I wonder how he is faring now.
“I think of grief as a little black box in my head,” he says. “That box, it’s always in the house. You’re not focused on it, but it’s always there. Every now and then, you go to the shelf, you open the box – and everything comes out. That’s when things are tough.”
Work is clearly a salve. “I think we are all aware of our flaws, and I am very aware that I’m a natural workaholic,” he says. He does “prescribe downtime” for himself, but then “prescribe” makes the downtime sound so dutiful. Or maybe it’s just a way to hack his workaholism for his emotional wellbeing. In practice, he says, he relaxes with frequent bath bombs and long solitary walks. In a bit, he says, he will go out and grab some fresh air.
George has a lot of jobs: A&E doctor in University Hospital Lewisham in south London two days a week; social media influencer with a stream of partnerships (recently Fitbit, laundry sanitiser, moisturising handwash, Rightmove and Almonds UK); podcaster; YouTuber; author; charity worker.
“I’m starting a bath bomb business,” he says.
What? “My favourite thing is just to jump in the bath. Bath bomb in! Relax. That’s why I’m starting the company,” he says.
So he is taking his favourite form of relaxation and turning it into another job? This probably wasn’t what his colleague had in mind when she saw him looking knackered after a shift, and gave him his first bath bomb. But George is very driven. He began to research mental health when he left Love Island. Then, after Llŷr died, his research intensified. “I spent thousands of hours on the phone to all the mental health charities, everyone that would speak to me,” he says, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. He does look tired.
“Mental health leads, teachers, students … I’ve read through hundreds of papers, I’ve understood the policy inside out. Because I really wanted to be armed with the knowledge, because I knew some people might be like: ‘Has he?’”
Mental health was not greatly talked about in his home when he was growing up, and I am curious to know where his interest originates. “In my fourth year of university [at Exeter], I got sent to Truro on placement,” he says. “And I became quite isolated. I was away from family and friends. I lost a lot of energy. I started feeling really rubbish. I thought: ‘If I speak to the university, they’ll stop me from being a doctor.’ I thought: ‘Well, what do I do about this?’”
Eventually, he told his mum (she works in a bank and is now on bereavement leave; his dad is a retired police officer). “And we worked it out among ourselves. I realised: ‘Well, actually, I’ve stopped going outside. I don’t get any natural light.’ My sleep pattern was terrible. Eating awfully. No exercise. I thought: ‘Well, this is stupid. All the things that are good for you, I’m not doing.’ I kind of had a bit of a revamp,” he says.
His mum suggested they speak nightly to discuss any worries. And he promised her: “‘I’ll go for a walk every day to get natural light. I’ll start exercising’ – I started training four days a week – ‘and I’ll cook my own meals. And, very importantly, I’ll go to bed at 10 and I’ll be up at 7.30am.’” It sounds like quite an overhaul. “And, literally, within a month, I was really excited about life again.”
He says this all so breezily that it’s as if, from the start, the cure was within reach. Was he depressed? “I probably … I think I had mild depression,” he says, a little falteringly, as if this were a new thought. “Looking at my symptoms, I clinically had mild depression.” If he had seen a GP – which he didn’t – the GP would have recommended those lifestyle changes he made. Basically, he was his own doctor.
You can see why George and Johnson got on so well. George has a resolute cheerfulness and positivity that suggest good times are just around the corner. “One of the things I said to the prime minister that really struck a chord was about resilience. Because, ultimately, what we are teaching children is the tools to make them resilient. He really understood that. I put it in that way. I was like, this is not about feeling down.”
I worry a little that words such as “tools” and “toolbox” imply that mental wellbeing is a mostly straightforward DIY job. The sort of self-determination that George summoned in Truro is not always accessible from the pits of despair. Does he think mental health is more self-treatable than physical health?
“These tools apply to mental and physical health,” he says. In time, he would like to “step away from [the idea of] mental health” altogether, and just talk about health. “If you are out exercising you’re probably going to be physically more healthy and fixing yourself, and your mental health is going to improve.” He has just sat GP exams so he can switch to more preventive care.
In many ways, George seems very open. On Instagram, he posts his bad days as well as his good ones. He has confronted the aesthetic pressures of social media that he himself may have perpetuated by sharing before-and-after Love Island photos in a sort of reverse makeover. His unsculpted belly and missing six pack are signs of a healthier lifestyle, he says. He has talked about his brother’s death to help others, and even enunciates the word “suicide” unflinchingly.
And yet there is something mystifying and very private about him. His Truro story tells of just one brief experience of mild depression. “Mm-hmm … mm-hmm,” he says, as if listening to someone describe their symptoms. It just seems such an unlikely trajectory. I try to picture him, growing up in Nantgaredig, in Carmarthenshire, with brothers Llŷr and Elliott, who is now 26 and works as an engineer in the RAF.
“I was very quiet,” George says. “I’m an introvert – a sensitive introvert is probably what I’d describe myself as. Introversion is not about your ability to be vocal or strong; it’s about where you draw your energy from, isn’t it? I draw my energy on my own, in my own spaces, on my walking, listening to music.” If you were to see him at a party, he would be “in the corner with a quiet beer and a couple of mates,” he says.
“I hate attention. I actually hate being the centre of attention.” Really? “Well, I do like people’s support. Without the support I’d never have been able to do any of this stuff. It’s just that I sometimes find it uncomfortable having so much focus.”
I’m wondering how an introvert who hates attention ends up on Love Island, but he laughs: “Because someone tells you to do it, that’s how!” He never applied to the show. Producers spotted his profile on the dating website Bumble and approached him. A colleague at Lewisham egged him on. He doesn’t regret his appearance, despite the tragedies associated with the show. Two former contestants, and the presenter Caroline Flack, have died by suicide.
“I don’t regret it. I believe that everything’s yin and yang. I believe greatly in life that there’s good and bad in everything. And everyone, actually. But I don’t regret things. I like to just learn from each scenario and take that lesson forward in life.”
The light catches a signet ring on his little finger. It’s beautiful. “I’ll show you,” he says. He removes the ring and holds it to the camera. It’s engraved with “Llŷr”, his brother’s name. “On the inside, there’s an ‘Our Boy’. Because that’s what we used to call him, ‘Our Boy’.”
George designed the ring, then had five made out of Welsh gold, one each for him, Elliott, their mum and dad. The fifth ring is for Llŷr himself.
“Obviously he’s not going to have it. But I just felt a bit weird if I didn’t get him one. I felt like I was leaving him out, so …” Llŷr’s ring will probably live in a drawer; but George wears his own daily. “It gives me comfort,” he says. “I look at it, I see his name, and feel a bit of strength.”
• In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org