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Dr Alex George gets real about mental health with Scarlett Moffatt: 'No one has a shiny, rosy life'

Our guest editor Scarlett Moffatt interviewed Dr. Alex about all things mental health

TV presenter Scarlett Moffatt has told former Love Island star Dr. Alex George that he's a role model for young people, as the good friends sat down to chat for HELLO!'s Mental Health Digital Issue which Scarlett is guest-editing.

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Dr. Alex is the government's Youth Mental Health Ambassador, and Scarlett, who fought her own mental health battle after winning I'm a Celebrity in 2016, was keen to chat to him about mental health in teenagers and young people. The friends also discussed how men can talk more openly about their mental health.

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VIDEO: Watch Scarlett and Dr. Alex George's interview 

Alex often speaks about his own mental health on his social media, and in doing so, has amassed a huge two million following on Instagram, where he shares wellbeing advice.

Scarlett told Alex: "I used to be a primary school teacher and I know that unfortunately there are some children who don't have a support network, so social media is the place that they look to for advice on this stuff.

"I'm just pleased that my cousins Noah and Joshua have someone like you – a man who is cool – and you are cool… you were on Love Island! I think you're a really good role model."

Alex replies: "You are as well, Scarlett. You're very honest and the reason you've been so successful is because you are who you are, and that's what we need more of.

"I've got my imperfections as anyone has, but hopefully we can be honest and authentic and that's the most important thing. The filtered world and the perfect lifestyle are not very healthy and people are wise to it now. Some kids now see through it; they don't want that anymore. They want less glossy, fake stuff, and more of the real."

Read Scarlett's interview with Dr. Alex George below…

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Dr. Alex in his role as the government's Youth Mental Health Ambassador

 

Scarlett: Alex, one of the most important things I wanted to ask you is: what is mental health? 

Dr. Alex: Well I think there's a lot of jargon around it. People use different words like wellbeing, mental illness, mental health, self-care - and what do all these different things mean?

In a way, it's very similar in a sense to physical health, where there's a full spectrum from being super fit, able to run, able to move and do the things you want to do each day, all the way to very poor physical health, having disease or heart problems or not being able to do the things you want to do.

Very similarly, mental health is a broad spectrum. On one end, which very few people are at I think, is perfect mental health; you're happy all the time and everything's rosy. In reality, that's an end of the spectrum that's not realistic for almost all of us. That's not real life. At the other end of the spectrum is really severe mental illness and not many people are at that end, but there are people there.

What's important to understand about that spectrum is your position is not fixed and that's a good thing and a bad thing in some ways. But if you look at it in that way, it can be really helpful in tough times. Just because you're at the bottom end and things are tough at the moment, doesn't mean you can't get up towards the top and be a lot happier.

Also, there's an element of understanding why you feel happy. Why are you in that place? Are you not drinking too much alcohol? Getting plenty of exercise? Sleeping alright? Doing things you enjoy and feel a sense of purpose?

Understanding that is really powerful, and that's where things like self-care, well-being and all those words come in – to bring you as high as possible to the top end.

I think people associate 'mental health' with being 'mental illness' and that's not true. We all have mental health. If you are alive, you have mental health.

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Scarlett: I have to talk about your book Live Well Every Day. It's a good little tool kit…

Dr. Alex: Thank you. Live Well Every Day was all of the things that I wish I knew at university or even at school.

We learn maths, we learn history and different things but we don't really learn about how to look after ourselves, so I looked back and thought, 'What are all the things I think are important for people to understand - from having a purpose in life, to what you need to do about sleep, nutrition and diet'. I broke it down into seven areas.

The book isn't about being perfect every day – it's about understanding what we need to do to give us the best chance to live a good day, most days.

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Live Well Every Day by Dr. Alex George, £10.99, Amazon

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Scarlett: I feel like already it's making me put a lot of stuff into perspective, especially the diet stuff. We hear 'diet' and instantly think of losing weight, but your gut health does affect your mental health. I know I'm most anxious when I drink alcohol and then eat takeaway…

Dr. Alex: All 'diet' means is what you eat. If you are consuming food, you have a diet. Diet culture has become a thing of a restricted mindset around food. Your body is a machine and it needs fuelling, so if you look at food as a fuel that can be enjoyed, that's much more powerful.

I've had my own difficulties with food over the years. I certainly am someone who in difficult times, eats more, and I'm aware of that. It's useful to understand your tendencies with food, but it's also important to not be so hard on yourself. I always felt I needed to look a certain way, but now I'm much more about my function. I've got back into the gym recently.

MORE: The top 12 wellness podcasts to nourish your mind, body and soul

Scarlett: I love your Instagram posts by the way!

Dr. Alex: Oh, thank you. I post pictures of me topless, not to say 'look at me' but because there's so much pressure on guys to look a certain way. We talk about pressure on women but I don't know if we talk much about pressure on men.

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One of Dr. Alex's Instagram posts

I'm fit and healthy; I can go in the pool and swim, I can do a run, and I'm generally ok in my fitness. I'm happy with that. It doesn't mean I need to look a certain way. I go to the gym because it makes me feel good and how my brain makes me feel rather than my body.

I haven't weighed myself recently – why would I? I don't count calories. I just think about what's good for my body to fuel me and I want to move each day. If I do those two things, then I feel better about it, and that's the point of the book. Look at things in a bit more of a common-sense way rather than 'Oh, this is the only way to feel good'.

Scarlett: How would you encourage men to talk about their own mental health?

Dr. Alex: It's interesting because there's a lot of talk about masculinity these days and 'toxic masculinity' is a problem – the idea where masculinity becomes too much and is overarching. There's also the problem of society not allowing or making the forum for men to feel like they can really talk about how they feel.

I had a sit-down chat at 10 Downing Street talking about men's mental health and there was a gentleman there, an expert psychologist, who said often it's about finding the right place for men to talk.

Men are not as likely as women to sit and have a cup of tea and chat, but they might go for a hike together or do something outdoors that gives them a space where they feel they can talk about it.

If I've got a mate I'm worried about, I'd probably say to him, 'Let's go for a walk, or let's go for a cycle', then we'll stop for a coffee halfway through the cycle. You kind of go, 'How are you doing? I've picked up on a few things that you're not yourself, do you want to talk about it?' You don't have to worry about it too much – just ask the question.

Often they'll say, 'No, it's fine mate', then a couple of days later you say, 'I mentioned it the other day, are you sure everything's ok?'

That's the idea of the 'Ask Twice' campaign. It's all around giving people a couple of opportunities to talk to you. If they want to, they will. Some people don't want to talk and there's only so much you can do for them. Letting them know that if they want to, you're there, is the best thing you can do because they know that that person really does care.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Dr Alex ™️ (@dralexgeorge)

The second thing, is when you talk to people, make sure that you know where to signpost them.

There's nothing worse than saying 'Look I'm here to help you' and feeling like you need to try and fix them, which you shouldn't. As a friend, your job is not to fix them. You're not a doctor – and even if you are a doctor, you're there as a friend or a family member. You're there to listen and signpost.

Say: 'I'll be there with you through this journey and whatever support you need, and this is the support that's available.'

It's not just about knowing of support for yourself, it's knowing it for people around you because when that moment comes and someone reaches out to hold your hand, be that person who has something to say and suggest where they can get good support.

Scarlett: I love your 'Post Your Pill' mental health campaign on social media…

Dr. Alex: That's amazing to hear that. To be honest with you, I was nervous about posting it for all sorts of reasons and being a medic, there's even more stigma around taking medication. I thought, you know what, I'm going to do it – and the response has been amazing.

The thing I wanted was not for people to go, 'Oh gosh, are you alright?', it was very much taking power over it and saying there's nothing to be ashamed of.

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Alex started the #PostYourPill campaign on Instagram

What I've been really happy about is seeing other people posting their pills – people who don't know that I started it. That's not important. People are doing it because they heard about it and they want to get involved. That's amazing.

There's an England cricketer that did it, there are sportspeople, it's been in Australia – it's just trying to keep it going. Posting it the first day of the month, every month, and if it helps a few people then it's worth it.

I've had DMs from people saying 'I've been struggling for 10 years. I've not spoken to anyone and I've gone to see my doctor and I'm starting treatment and medication. And it's not necessarily about medication… it might be therapy or any kind of support – it's taking the step to getting what you need.

Scarlett: I suppose we wouldn't really feel the stigma of taking paracetamol if we had a bad head so I think it's such a good thing. The issue is, social media can be a bad place but can also be used for good…

Dr. Alex: Yep, and we both know this. It can be the most horrible space, but also a positive space. I always think it's about how you use it. How do I manage the bits that are bad or protect myself from that and engage with the bits that are good?

For me, that's not using Twitter and I focus on the platforms where I feel there's a supportive community. Even on Instagram, sometimes people can have a go but on the whole, if you create your own positivity and genuinely care about what you do, people respond to that. In that sense, it can be good.

Things like managing your screen time. It's easy to spend six or seven hours a day on it. A lot of the evidence with social media use is linked to time, so the longer you're online, the more likely you are to experience problems like anxiety and depression as a result of it.

And managing what you see. Only follow people that make you feel good, that reflect your hobbies and interests. If you follow people that make you feel jealous, just unfollow them.

If social media is making you feel anxious, have a detox – turn it off for a week, a month.

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TV presenter Scarlett Moffatt

Scarlett: What would you say to teenagers who are struggling with their mental health?

Dr. Alex: With social media, even if you don't come off it, you can limit it. Say half an hour a day. I'll go on Instagram, check if anyone's messaged me that I want to chat to and I'll check what my best mate's doing and then I'll come and leave it. And narrow how many platforms you're using – do you really need every single platform? Use the ones that relate to you and follow accounts that make you feel positive.

In terms of bullying, which we know is a big problem online, don't tolerate it. Block accounts that are bullying you. Go into your Instagram and you can affect keywords, so if people send you certain messages then they won't appear in your DMs or in your comments.

If you really are experiencing bullying, talk to people. Speak to your family and friends around you; I guarantee you won't be the only person who's experiencing it. If not then reach out to help from other support services like Young Minds or Mind. Don't suffer it alone. You don't need to go through it alone.

Scarlett: You've had difficult times as well. What things do you do to get through a bad day?

Dr. Alex: We all have up and down days and I have days where things get on top of me and I think this is too much. The first thing is recognising when you're struggling.

It's very hard to focus on feelings because feelings within ourselves are hard to understand all the time. What you can focus on is behaviour. So if you've lost interest in meeting your friends or your hobbies or maybe you're being a bit grouchy, notice how people are interacting with you and how you're behaving. If you are feeling that way, think about what's going on.

Go through the checklist: am I doing something today that gives me a bit of passion and purpose? Have I eaten reasonable food today? Have I drunk enough water? Did I sleep the last few nights? Am I maybe feeling a bit anxious because I drank a bit too much this weekend? When is the last time I moved and got some natural light, or saw my friends?

Then, it's: 'Do I rectify that list or do I need a bit of self-care time?'

For me it's running a bath, a bit of classical music because it reduces my anxiety, chatting with a friend – I've got one friend I chat to and I always feel better for doing – and going outside.

And come off the phone. The phone never stops. Social media and the online space are going to be here long after you're gone so don't waste your life worrying about it too much because it's not going anywhere: you are.

One of the best things you can do when you're feeling rubbish is showing gratitude, and not just in the sense of having a privileged position like I consider myself to be, it's the little things like I'm grateful to breathe today, I'm glad I can move, I've got someone I can speak to. Look around and find gratitude in little things because often the things that overwhelm us are maybe not the most important things anyway.

Like with Cristiano Ronaldo losing one of his twins, you can have everything in the world but what really matters is the health of your family, friends, and the things you need each day: food, water, shelter. Focus on those little things and you realise, actually, you've got a lot more than you think.

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Dr. Alex advises self care and gratitude 

Scarlett: That's really great advice. Whenever I speak to you I always feel instantly better.

Dr. Alex: That's really kind. Maybe you're thinking there's someone worse off than me! [laughs]

Scarlett: No, I really do!

Dr. Alex: You go through good and bad times in life. I think you eventually come to realise that no one has a shiny rosy life. The best and worst things happen to everyone and so when you can accept that and realise the rough with the smooth comes, and when like is difficult, it will get better, and when it's really good, something might happen.

It's about understanding that even if it's really good and something goes wrong – say you're in this rosy relationship and you think 'oh my god, what if we break up?' If you do break up, you know that won't last forever, you will find happiness afterwards. There's a real level of contentment that comes with accepting that life is what it is. 

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