Dr Alex George has always spoken openly about mental health, using his post-Love Island platform to normalise and encourage honest discussions about how we’re really feeling.
But in July, the subject came to the front of his life when his younger brother Llŷr died from suicide and the family faced unimaginable grief.
The A&E doctor and his family are now preparing for their first Christmas without the 20-year-old, and Alex admits it’s going to be tough.
Speaking to The Mirror to raise awareness of mental health as part of a campaign with Nuffield Health, he said: “Going towards Christmas is hard. Some days are good days, some days are bad days. Grief is an evolving thing. I’ve never had to grieve like this before.
“You’ve got to learn to go with that.
“I’m naturally a very driven person, I like to work hard and keep busy. Sometimes I overwork, and I share that on my Instagram as well.
“People say ‘oh Alex you do all this stuff, you achieve all this stuff’, and actually sometimes it’s not a good thing. Stopping and processing is a part of grief.
“Sometimes, I have to slow down and take more time to allow myself to feel what I feel.
“Otherwise I put things in front of myself all the time to keep busy. It’s something a lot of people do, it’s not uncommon. That’s why it’s important to share it. People reply to me and say ‘thank you, because you saying that has made me feel normal’.
“It’s about making it a normal conversation.”
The family plan to have a quiet Christmas this year, and Alex knows that he needs to focus on the things that help him through the grief.
He adds: “I love Christmas, I’m such a Christmassy person but obviously this one is going to be very difficult.
“The first without a family member is always going to be hard. I think it’s going to be really tough for the rest of us, but obviously with Covid you can’t exactly have a big Christmas.
“We’ll have a very private Christmas this year and just get through it. There is no doubt it’s going to be tough.
“It’s going to be tough for a lot of people. This year has been hard, a lot of people have passed away from Covid. There are a lot of people without family members. It’s even more of a reason that people should look after themselves.”
“The last few days, I haven’t felt great, I’ve been grieving, so I have to stick to the things I know help.
“So I made sure I did exercise, I did my HIIT workout, I did lots of walking outside, lots of natural light, I’ve avoided alcohol, I’ve eaten well, I’ve phoned friends and just talked through how I felt.
“Anyone who is finding it hard right now, go back to those building blocks and that routine.
“Do reach out if you need help, your GP is there to help and support you, and make sure you have someone to talk to. Speak to the person you can confide in.”
Alex is very open about his grief, and hopes his honestly will make people realise it’s fine to speak out if you need to.
“Grief is a very individual thing. I think you’ve got to deal with things in the way you feel best.
“For me, I do feel comfort that people are so kind. There is an element of support, social media is a two way thing. My followers and the people who support me on there are just as helpful to me as I am the other way around.
“Sharing that stuff does help me. For men and grief, it’s all about the barriers and the languaage.
“The idea that if you’re grieving or you’re upset it’s weakness. Trying to debunk all that stuff. It’s not weak at all, in fact I think it shows a lot of strength when people share what they’re feeling and being open.
“But we shouldn’t be hard on people either, because some people might want to grieve quietly and not talk to people and that’s absolutely fine as well.
“What I don’t want is people not to share or reach out or talk about how they feel because they don’t feel able. If they want to, they should be able to.”
After Llŷr’s death, Alex decided to take a social media break, which he believes everyone should do at least once a year to look after their mental health.
“I think it’s important everyone should have a digital detox. Even if it’s once a year just taking some time out and having some time off line.
“We’re so attached to our phones, I’m probably worse than most as a lot of my job involves social media of some sort, but that time out for me was really needed at that time.
“It was just after he passed. I needed time to focus on myself to have reflection and to be really present and be with the family.
“I found it really benefitial. To anyone who is considering it, do it. You come back a few weeks later and nothing changes. You might have missed a few posts but who cares? It’s not important.
“We over-egg using social media somethings. I actually think social media is really good, but with everything there is good and bad. It’s how you use it.”
Unlike many of his Love Island co-stars, Dr Alex’s social media feeds aren’t filled with edited professional photos, and he uses his accounts to give honest insight on both the good and bad aspects of his day-to-day life.
“You can understand why, you want to put your best foot forward and people want to use nice pictures of themselves, but people don’t show the full scenario.
“No one has a good day every day. No one walks around on this earth and has perfection every day.
“We all have difficult times. I felt like on social media we were portraying certain elements and I really wanted to be much more honest about that, as I have good days and bad days.
“I think it’s important that we do that and it’s important to normalise it, especially among men. There is no doubt that when it comes to suicide, for men it’s a massive issue. They don’t tend to ask for help. We have to look at the barriers and why that is.
“It’s about teaching everyone to be aware of how they feel and how to improve their mental health, before it gets to that point.
“It’s about understanding the role of social media, detoxing your social platform – rating your feeds so you only see positive influences, making sure you’re not spending too much time relying on social media for that rewards.”
“I think people appreciate it.”
Alex has teamed up with Nuffield Health and the Mental Health Foundation as they launch a new online questionnaire, which aims to get the UK thinking more holistically about their mental wellbeing.
Their concern is that the topic has become overmedicalised, which means many people are afraid to talk about it.
The new project comes after a survey found that four in five Brits are concerned about the ongoing negative impact of the pandemic on their mental health, and 36% saying they’ve experienced increased stress and anxiety.
Alex tells The Mirror: “Mental health is obviously very close to my heart, not just because I lost my brother this summer, but over the years I’ve really noticed how much mental health affects everyone.
“We can’t separate mental and physical health, the two are so combined.
“I think the big issue is we have maybe over-medicalised the way we think about mental health.
“Using words such as depression, even mental health itself, the words carry a certain weight that I think can sometimes make looking after our well-being inaccessible for some people.
“We’re trying to help people realise that mental health affects everyone, and therefore we all have a responsibility to look after ourselves and each other.
“This year has been tough and the pandemic has been awful and it’s obvious the effects it’s had on people’s mental health. But the one thing we can take from this is we realise now that we can’t treat mental health as some secondary thing that’s low on the list of importance.”
Alex has worked in the A&E department at Lewisham Hospital throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, so has seen the frontline impact on patients and colleagues’ mental health.
He said: “It was a shock at first. Lewisham was really hard hit.
“We had a huge number of patients. We were one of the hardest hit in the whole country.
“It was carnage. It went from zero to pretty bad in a very short period of time.
“At the start we had pods out the front of the hospital. It went from five or six patients a day to ITU and resus being full in a matter of a few weeks. It was hard.
“It was hard on the mental health of staff. We realised that staff well-being is important as well, we’ve really tried to work on that.
“It feels like we’re steady now. I just hope we can keep steady now until we come out in spring.”
But like many other people, Alex is delighted at the vaccine news and recalls the moment he found out it had been officially approved.
He said: “I was chuffed. I was elated, it was a huge relief.
“It was emotional really, what I think people don’t realise is we didn’t know at one point if we would get a vaccine. I think it was very probable, but how long would it be? What if we didn’t have a vaccine for four or five years.
“We’re very lucky and very fortunate. I hope people realise what a feat of science this has been achieved.
“The idea that the vaccine was rushed, it’s ticked all the boxes it needed to under all the guidance from our drug regulatory board. It hasn’t been skipped, we’ve just had so many resources.
“It’s unbelievable and it gives us all hope. It’s important for mental heath. We need to get back to what we know as normal sooner rather than later.
“I think it’s good to have a light at the end of the tunnel.”
For more information, support and to complete the questionnaire, visit the Nuffield Health website.