As the UK Youth Mental Health Ambassador within the Department for Education - why is it important to encourage open conversation around mental health with young people?
“I think it's because that's how we're going to change and break down the stigma.”
“I think people are uncomfortable around mental health, they’re not sure what it is, like, what are emotions, what are feelings, how do we navigate this space? I think that awkwardness we particularly see in the older generations; maybe that's not always fair, but sometimes we do see that in older generations. I think to combat, it’s about conversations, talking, education, as much as with most things, and it's getting in there young.”
“I think we made so much progress with sexual health in this country. There’s a lot less taboo around sex and sexual education now than there was even ten years ago, and I think we can do a similar thing with mental health.”
“If we get in there young, get young children talking about their thoughts, their feelings, emotional literacy, so understanding the words and language around mental health and wellbeing, and we build that up to a good understanding of how to look after themselves and what to do when things go wrong, then that will make people so much more comfortable.”
“Because then, it's just something that's spoken about. There are situations, particularly with men, where they won't share their feelings when they're struggling - the way to really combat that is to make an environment and a culture of ‘it's genuinely okay not to be okay, and it's okay to talk about it’.”
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You believe in the ‘whole school approach’ – moving forward, why is it important wellbeing and academia come hand in hand?
“I think ultimately, they complement each other. If you are a happy and healthy child who's engaged in school and has a good network of friends, a good support bubble, they understand how to manage their thoughts, feelings how to take care of themselves, the role of exercise. All these things play a part in who they are and how they feel, and make them much more likely to be successful in their work and engaged in their learning.”
“And also, of course, behaviour-wise, which is very important. Children who are happy and engaged are more likely to be better behaved. And that helps not just the individual, but the learning of the rest of the class.”
“In terms of academia, we know that it's very important - of course it is. But we can't just have the academic merits or successes of the school being the only parameter that's important.”
“Ultimately, when the child leaves school, they'll have a situation where they have to apply to jobs, they might not get the job they wanted, they might have to move to a new setting. They need to learn to adapt because things happen.”
“Look at the pandemic. We can't wrap people in cotton wool, but we can prepare them to deal with issues in life. When things go wrong and bad things happen, being able to fall back on those things that keep us together and keep us healthy and well, that's very important.”
“When we talk about stigma and mental health, and we talk about asking people to reach out, a lot of the barriers come down around that stigma. If you start in school and with a whole school approach to education, you can prevent the stigma before they even start, we hope.”
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You often encourage others to reach out and seek support - why is it important to do so if you are struggling emotionally?
“People often ask the question; ‘how do I know when to reach out?’, and I think if that question has popped into your head, you should really reach out and ask for help.”
“And then, of course, there is a very long conversation to be had about resourcing, funding and services, because a lot of people feel very frustrated that sometimes they're reaching and then facing very long waiting times.”
“What I would say is that, actually, there are a lot of different sources of support. Yes, of course, go to your GP as referrals might be needed for different therapies, but there are fantastic organisations and charities out there that support people, like Young Minds.”
“There is a fantastic website called Hub of Hope where you can put your postcode in and it will tell you all the support services, from charities to NHS and otherwise, available in your area to support you.”
“Actually, there's a lot of support out there that people don't realise and aren’t aware of. It’s very important if you are struggling to reach out, because ultimately, we can only start fixing a problem when we actually acknowledge and do something about it.”
“It’s that first step that’s sometimes the hardest, but that ultimately, will bring change. And I also say: try and tell someone in your friendship group, someone in your family, ideally someone at work and also a professional.”
“So then, you've got different networks of people, in different parts of your life, who can support you, because you don't need to go through problems and difficult times alone. We're here as a community, and human beings are social creatures so don't expect to go things alone, because you don't have to.”
“There’s so much support, so you have to find out what's there, because sometimes, we're not always aware.”
“That’s something I'm very conscious of and why I try and raise awareness of different modes of support, because actually people aren't aware of them. A brilliant one for schoolchildren is Shout, a text service.”
“Not everyone's the same, not speaking for all young people, but a lot of young people might not want to speak face to face. They might be more comfortable on their phone, so Shout is a text service available 24 hours a day, and there's people at the end of the line who can respond and start helping that individual.”
“That's amazing, but it only helps if young people are aware of it – if they are not aware of it, it is effectively not there.”
If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?
“Fear less. Not be ‘fearless’ but fear less.”
“Live your life, enjoy each moment, push yourself and put yourself in situations that are uncomfortable, and grow. I think I have later in life, certainly done that much more. But I think when I was younger, I worried too much about life and what might be.”
“So, I think: ‘just live life’.”
As well as being the UK’s first Government Ambassador of Mental Health, Dr Alex George is a popular mental health and wellbeing speaker, part of The Champions Speakers Agency.