Dr Alex visited the Union last Monday (16/5) for a Q&A on men's mental healthLevente Koroes/ Cambridge Union

Content Note: This article contains discussion of mental health issues, including brief mention of suicide

Dr Alex George may have been propelled to fame by starring on ITV’s Love Island back in 2018, but he’s more interested in talking about what he’s done since.

Now working as the UK’s first youth mental health ambassador to the government, Alex uses social media to promote his work destigmatising mental health, get funding for his next project, early intervention support hubs, and offer advice on how to cope with life’s varying challenges — of which he has faced many.

Alex’s empathy for young people is instantly clear when he discusses his mixed experience while studying Medicine at Exeter University. “In my first, second, and third years of med school I was doing well and really enjoying it. Then in fourth year I really started to struggle and got into a place where I think I developed mild depression.”

His personal struggles have motivated him to push harder for change from within government. In July 2020, Alex lost his younger brother, Llyr, to suicide. Much of the work he does now is to prevent other young people and their families from going through the same tragedy. He tells me that his current project, creating early support hubs, “will be a legacy for my brother” if he gets the £250 million needed from the government. “I think that it will save and improve so many lives across the country…If I can achieve that, I will be very happy.”

Having worked for the NHS during the pandemic, and, like every other Briton, witnessed the mounting accusations of misconduct against the Prime Minister and the Conservative government, does he find it difficult to separate his own political beliefs from his work as ambassador? “Mental health is bipartisan”, he says simply. “I’m there to work with whoever because ultimately working with people in power is an opportunity to make change, and that is what matters to me.”

His recent campaign, #PostYourPill, works on destigmatising medication for mental health, a taboo which Alex states he struggled to overcome when finding help at university: “I didn’t feel as if I could speak to the university as a doctor-to-be. I thought ‘they’re not going to let me graduate if I can’t look after myself’. So I didn’t.”

“Children’s emotional literacy now is better than mine was”

Yet Alex is hopeful for the next generation. He emphasises that the “emotional literacy” of the children he visits in schools is “infinitely better than what mine was, even at university.” However, while acknowledging that progress has been made surrounding the awareness of mental health issues, he argues that this generation — the first to grow up in the age of social media and technology from birth — faces unprecedented challenges in many ways.

“Every generation has its challenges but I think one thing that is particularly difficult is that the social media world, that hyperconnected state with the digital world but a disconnect in human senses, is a huge issue. We’ve never been lonelier as a society, and that is primarily because we’re spending around up to four hours on our phones each day.”

Love Island has often been cited as part of the problem. Critics of the dating show have pointed to the unrepresentative body types of contestants, the three suicides which have occurred in connection to the show, and the overwhelming scrutiny contestants face from viewers upon leaving the isolating world of the ‘Villa’.

When our conversation inevitably turned to the reality show where Alex made his name, he half smiles as though he’d expected the topic to come up and had readied himself. But there is a weariness beneath his expression. Despite all the work he does for young people, his stint on reality TV continues to haunt him. Wherever he goes, young people know him first as an ex-Islander — the Cambridge Union included.

“We’ve never been lonelier as a society”

Yet he patiently answers with an honest reflection: “I trained really hard to get in shape on Love Island, was part of the whole problem on it, and since then have realised it made me feel terrible. I was hyper-judgemental on my own body, I removed myself from social circles, I didn’t want to eat out.”

But Dr Alex characteristically concludes with a positive, activist outlook. “As humans, we learn and develop, and I look back and think that’s probably not the way humans should present themselves. That’s why, as part of ITV’s mental health campaign, I work with them and look at how we can make it more representative in terms of background, ethnicity, and, obviously, body type.”

Undoubtedly, Dr Alex George has achieved a lot in the four short years since his time in the Villa. He tells young people to be equally as ambitious. For those wishing to support his campaign, Alex prescribes “writing to their local MP, sharing the work I’m doing, using your voice on social media.

“Ultimately, the reason I ended up in this role was not just because of my following, but everyone sharing it and amplifying that noise and making it happen — that’s why.”