Dr Alex interview: The only influencer whose work is actually essential
The A&E doctor talks about a new government gig, his brother's suicide and the differences between Theresa May and Boris Johnson
"No," Dr Alex George asserts simply, "Mental health services in the UK are not adequately funded." It's initially a slightly surprising admission, as the former-Love-Island-contestant-turned-pandemic-icon became Youth Mental Health Ambassador for Boris Johnson's government earlier this month. But Dr Alex is not on the Tory pay roll and is there "to be objective... I am not the government."
It's the second prime minister the A&E doctor has graced with his presence. Although, he admits, a meeting with Theresa May lasted only minutes. "What I was really pleased about with Boris, the prime minister, I should say," he laughs, "The prime minister was switched on with what I wanted to do. He's got young children, he understands we have a problem, there is a huge crisis and pressure on young people."
"He said 'I want you to make changes, I don't want this to be a PR stunt.' In that conversation the language we used was about bringing change, that implies we understand things aren't where they need to be."
I’m delighted to announce that we have appointed @DrAlexGeorge to be our Youth Mental Health Ambassador.
Young people have sacrificed so much during this pandemic and we are going to do everything we can to support them. pic.twitter.com/2HeiwsC9lI
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) February 3, 2021
We're talking as Dr Alex promotes the #LiftWeightDonate campaign, in partnership with Sports Direct, aimed at encouraging people to film a few weighted reps of an exercise, share what's been weighing them down mentally and then donate £1 for every rep to charity Sporting Minds UK.
In the Venn diagram of Dr Alex and this campaign the circles are close to concentric, he is the obvious choice of influencer for it and uses the jargon of a veteran. His accounts are a "tool" or "platform," followers his "community." He does point out, though, that much of his influencing is done gratis for causes with which he aligns, and "the other 15 per cent" only serves to support his philanthropy.
Still, he would surely acknowledge social media has a negative impact, as much as a positive one, if not more, on our mental health? "In the most basic sense social media is just a tool," there is it again, "And therefore how you use that tool will shape whether it's good or bad.
"Social media has been on the one hand very, very powerful for spreading positive messages around hand hygiene during the pandemic, reporting on what's happening. But it's also had negative effects, fake news, the vaccine being Bill Gates micro-chipping you. You can't let the bad side drown out the side of positive change."
"I'm probably on Instagram too much. In the morning I try not to get up and be straight on my phone. If you open it up and you see something that really annoys you, you can put yourself in a bad mood, based on what you've just seen, for the rest of the day.
"Everything on Instagram is the past by definition, as soon as it's uploaded it's history. Be aware, you don't want to live in other people's history. Instagram is great but it's in the past. Let's be present."
The context to this is important. George has been through the Love Island meat grinder, the machine that imbibes swimwear models and qualified medics alike, imprints their minds with the baggage of being the entire nation's sole cultural focus for 8 weeks and their Instagram accounts with 1 million followers, and spits them out the other side, six-packs intact. In a period of 20 months, two of Love Island's contestants and also its host, Caroline Flack, died by suicide. It was an unpublished, poignant post from Flack's Instagram account that was released by her family in the wake of her death. In it Caroline said "I've been having some sort of emotional breakdown for a very long time... The truth has been taken out of my hands and used as entertainment."
I interviewed one of Alex's Love Island peers, and fleeting love interest, Megan Barton-Hanson at the time. She detailed the inextricable link between Instagram trolling, the reality TV show and its stars' mental health, using as an example one of her first experiences after leaving villa. She was sat down by a producer and comprehensively given a rundown of every single media story written about her since she arrived in Majorca, how it had been received and what people were saying about her now. Imagine landing at Heathrow after your own dream holiday to discover, waiting for you at the arrivals terminal, was a million-strong-mob all calling you fat, or a cunt, or both.
Alex says that's not been his experience of social media. Admittedly, it would take a certain breed of troll to attack a doctor working on the frontline during the coronavirus pandemic, though they certainly exist. "I'm very fortunate I haven't had a huge amount of trouble with trolling, you get a little bit of stuff. Some people were saying things when my brother passed and you think 'Well, does that really represent what most people would think or say in society?' Probably not, no.
"If people are rude or negative I just ignore it, to be honest, if you ignore them you don't energise these people and they go away because it's boring for them."
Alex's brother Llŷr died by suicide in the summer of 2020. Again, it takes a certain breed of troll. Alex says he had no idea his brother, who was due to take up a place at medical school, was struggling.
He cites him again when challenged over his new government role, is it a cynical attempt to build his influencer footprint and brand? "My brother died. My qualification for this role is not a qualification that anyone wants. I'm very happy to trade everything that I have to have my brother back alive with me and, in fact, I would give away anything I have and own and any future career. Not to be rude but if someone wants to trade places, they're more than welcome."
Dr Alex has been called "the only good influencer" during the pandemic and I'm inclined to agree. Towards the end of our interview I ask him, as a bona fide essential worker (his hospital treated London's first coronavirus patient), how he felt when another influencer described her flight to Dubai as "essential work" in order to create content to motivate her PT clients. He said: "I think it's very important I don't comment on, or judge, what other people are doing. I always try to focus on my own sphere of influence, I can't affect what other people are doing. It's not for me to judge. I've got enough of my own without carrying the mental burden of what other people are doing."
- To get involved in Sports Direct's #LiftWeightDonate campaign, post what’s weighing you down, a video of you doing your reps tagging @SportsDirectUK on Instagram or @SportsDirect on TikTok - and donate those reps in £ to @SportingMindsUK via their Just Giving page here.