Olly Alexander Discusses CBT and Mental Health Cuts

Olly Alexander, the lead singer of the acclaimed band Years and Years, was recently interviewed in The Guardian. He discusses his experience with mental health and the useful practice of CBT.

Alexander is an award-winning actor and singer, but fame aside, his experiences will be familiar to all too many young people. It’s estimated that one in 10 children and young people suffer from mental distress – such as depression and anxiety: and that most of them are not getting the help that they need.

Born in Blackpool, Alexander grew up in the small Gloucestershire market town of Coleford, a place he shows little affection for. “I haven’t been back to that area since I moved aged 18.” His childhood was difficult, but he is keen to deflect any sense of a sob story. “I feel like who hasn’t had a messy childhood?” His parents had a “fraught” relationship and divorced when he was 13, leaving the family with little money: there was always food on the table, but he remembers little, but meaningful, things, like not being able to afford school trips.

There is ample research suggesting a link between low income and heightened risk of mental distress. “It wasn’t until I moved to London when I was 18 that I realised what privilege is,” he explains. His father “was quite absent. He worked a lot and wasn’t there very much”.

The bullying began towards the end of primary school. “Kids can be so cruel at that age,” he says matter-of-factly. “I was just visibly a weaker kid. I think kids are all focused on their hierarchy and status, and I was low status or something.” He was beaten up, and he started skipping school: it landed him in trouble when his mother found out. The bullying carried on at the high school. “School was like a hostile place,” he recalls. “I just hated being at school. I think some people thrive in that environment. I was a good student, but I just didn’t enjoy school. I found it tough … If you’re not good at team sports, you’re fucked, and I was not good at team sports.”

There was another complication, too. Like a lot of gay teenagers, the creeping realisation that he wasn’t straight in what remains a homophobic society became a source of panic. He fell for his straight best friend but kept telling himself he was really straight, or maybe bisexual. “I was like, ‘Please let me not be gay! … I’ve got enough to deal with!’ Back in 2012, LGBT charity Stonewall warned that more than one in five gay and bisexual men suffered “moderate to severe levels of depression”.

Eventually, he was referred to the NHS for therapy and was given an anxiety drug and a “cocktail of medication”. He began with counselling – but was given just six or so sessions on the NHS. “They were really difficult to get. Hard to get hold of. They took a long time and because I was not very proactive in getting them – because the initial stage was phone conversations, and I would not pick up the phone, I didn’t want to go, and I didn’t know if I wanted to talk to someone about it.” He was referred to several different doctors who would each start from scratch.

It can only have got worse since. Under the last coalition government, mental health was finally given parity of esteem with physical health. But in reality cuts have disproportionately hit mental health services: at the end of the last year, the king’s Fund warned cuts had led to “widespread evidence of poor quality care”, and just 14% of patients were given the care they needed. In March last year, mental health charity Mind highlighted cuts of 8% to mental health services since David Cameron became prime minister, leading to bed shortages and even longer waits for treatment.

With the lack of readily available NHS provision, Alexander went private and was given Cognitive Behavioural Therapy when he was 19. “CBT is helpful if you have a panic disorder or anxiety, which I was experiencing at one stage,” he says. “CBT does help you try and relearn ways in which you can deal with those moments of panic or crisis.” He’s all too aware of the stigma attached to mental distress. He suggests a scenario: if you’re invited to a party and your mental state leaves you feeling unable to turn up, you might not feel comfortable saying you’re sick in the way you would if, say, you had a cold. “I think it’s like any other part of your body, your mental health, it gets sick, and it needs treatment.”

There is no question that a celebrity speaking out about his own experiences makes an impact. Have his fans responded? “Oh yeah, a lot of them have. Oh my gosh! They write me letters a lot of the time and give them to me at shows, or they’ll tweet it at me or write on Instagram. So many of them deal with mental issues, mental distress and it’s so overwhelming … but it’s mostly positive. It just feels like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a lot to have shared with me!’ Because I just don’t know – what’s the appropriate response to them?” The lyrics of many of his songs deal with mental distress (“or, you know, awful sexual encounters I’ve had!”)

But with a lack of adequate mental health services – even before the cuts – Alexander clearly feels frustrated. “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 complains that, back home, to see a specialist can involve a trip to Cambridge, approximately 170 miles away. “And when I started trying to get a counsellor 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, as he notes, “it feels like mental health is the first thing to get cut”.

It’s not just pop stars who suffer, after all: the wellbeing of so many young people is at stake. But the last thing Alexander wants those struggling with mental distress to do is despair. “The first thing you start to think if you’re alone and you’re crazy,” he says firmly. “There is a support network out there … make use of it.

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