Each month I give my verdict on who has shown the world an interesting and distinctive brand. My latest personal brand of the month goes to…
The 25-year-old actor and singer of the chart-topping band Years & Years has become a brave, authentic voice this month by opening up about mental health issues and his sexuality. Gay Times has even called him “the most important gay popstar of our time”. Alexander has indeed become an influential face behind the campaign for LGBT equality, and now, mental health advocacy.
In a candid interview with ES Magazine earlier this month, Alexander spoke openly and intimately about his past struggles with depression and anxiety. “I’ve had a lot of therapy since I was 19,” he said. “It’s a big help. I see a therapist for an hour once a week and I take medication.” He believes it is important to be open about his condition to help break down stigma and barriers: “I talk a lot about my medication. People are often scared to talk about it and at first I felt ashamed of taking medication because it made me feel like I was “ill”. But you don’t necessarily need to take it for the rest of your life. It’s not about becoming a perfect person. It’s about getting through a certain period, maintaining mental health like a muscle.”
Alexander, who starred in Bright Star in 2009 and Riot Club in 2014, disclosed a difficult childhood in Gloucestershire, UK, where, in addition to dealing with parental divorce and financial struggle, he also faced coming to terms with his sexuality and homophobic abuse. “I’ve been called names in the street and hit and spat at,” he shared with ES. Like many gay teenagers, the realisation that he was gay became a source of anxiety.
Alexander, who now lives in London Fields, Hackney, shared his frustrating experiences navigating treatment through the National Health Service (NHS). He eventually sought private cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) when he was 19. “CBT is really helpful if you have a panic disorder or anxiety, which I was definitely experiencing at one stage,” he says. “CBT does really help you try and relearn ways in which you can deal with those moments of panic or crisis.”
Alexander’s voice likely resonates with many young adults. According to the Mental Health Foundation, about one in 10 children and young people suffer from mental distress such as depression and anxiety, with most not receiving the help they need.
“I care about mental health a lot. It’s affected me and my family a lot, and it annoys me there’s not enough provided and stuff has been cut where my family are from.” He continues; “And when I started trying to get a counselor on the NHS about 10 years ago, there was a six-week waiting list. And now, I’m told, it’s like three months – it can be – or longer.” And, “it feels like mental health is the first thing to get cut.”
By sharing his very personal experience, Alexander hopes other young people will be encouraged to seek help, which in turn will put pressure on politicians to commit to giving the NHS’ mental health services much needed additional resources. He also calls for a body to educate employers on mental health issues and for a better understanding of mental health terminology.
Many of his songs have touched on mental health issues, and have also become a vehicle by which he expresses his sexuality. “My lyrics are about same-sex relationships, because that’s who I am,” he said. “It was important to me that I felt comfortable expressing myself. I’m always touched and humbled by the number of people who come up to me and say they connect with my sexuality in the songs.”
Such openness and vulnerability are clearly important components of Alexander’s personal brand. As he shared with Gay Times: “My therapist always says that vulnerability is strength,” he starts, “and I really think that’s true. Being able to be vulnerable, to acknowledge the way you feel and be sensitive to what’s happening around you is, I think, real strength.” Perhaps he summed it up best in his interview with ES: “When I was starting out as a musician five years ago, I made a decision to be as authentic as possible.” And that he certainly is.
As a psychologist and personal brander, I couldn’t be more impressed with his authentic, brave brand, one that will undoubtedly be a ray of hope to many other young people struggling in silence.