Such a simple message, yet one that so many of us grapple with on a daily occurrence. We talk about practicing ‘good’ mental health and social etiquette, but how far does that filter into the minutia of our lives? Shielded from the ‘real’ world and ‘real’ people in our own little corner of the internet, how many of us are sucked into the daily discourse of online drama and clickbait headlines? What’s an absent-minded 'like' here or trivial 'share' there, when the consequences seem to unfold in someone else’s reality? Yet whether you’ve got 20 or 2 million followers, hurtful comments and unwanted attention stings all the same.
For anti-bullying campaigner, advisor, and The Diana Award Deputy CEO Alex Holmes, the foundation for meaningful human interaction is simple: THINK. If it's not True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind, it is not worth saying or doing. At age 15, Alex turned his own experiences of bullying into the type of platform you generally only hear about in theory when he set up the Anti-Bullying Ambassadors Programme. Now, with a national outreach across three thousand schools and presence on multiple global advisory boards (including Instagram and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Alex has helped establish a powerful and empowering network that builds compassion from the ground up.
In this Mental Health Awareness Week Special photographed by Jade Danielle Smith, Alex introduces us to four friends and collaborators. Spending the day riverside with Locke Hotels, we find actor Will Poulter, presenter Cel Spellman, model Brian Whittaker and activist Kenny Ethan Jones bathed in golden hour glow as we talk to unravel those school years that are too often trivialised. These are the people who are having the conversations, as uncomfortable as they may be, so that one day we may all live in a brighter, more understanding, and inclusive world.
In a day and age where image is rumoured to be everything, never was the idea more prevalent that it truly is cool to be kind. As Fashion Editor Nathan Henry dresses the group in simple comforts, these five individuals before you are living, breathing proof.
Talk me through your journey to becoming Deputy CEO of The Diana Award.
I was on the receiving end of bullying when I was at school. Some of it was racism – my dad is black and his family is from Jamaica, and my mum's side was from Spain – and that continued to an extent at secondary school, but it also became homophobic bullying. There were a lot of times throughout my school life where I felt really upset, unsafe and uncomfortable. I felt depressed, really. It wasn't until I joined the sixth form that I felt I could do something about it. The people who were bullying me didn’t stay on like I did, and so I found my voice.
I came up with this idea of ‘Anti-Bullying Ambassadors’, who were other young people who could learn not only how to protect themselves, but also how to protect their peers and stand up to all different types of bullying. It was really successful – partly because it was young people speaking to young people, so it didn't sound the same way a parent or teacher did with such an authority tone. It felt that young people could actually change the way young people were thinking. And it wasn't just about people who had been bullied like me: it was for people who were by-standers and did nothing at times when they wanted to do something but felt powerless; and also, people that maybe had engaged in bullying behaviour. What’s really important is that we don't want to blame people for their behaviour or give them the label of being a ‘bully’, We try not to use that word, actually, because it sticks with you just as much as the word ‘victim’ does. None of them are really good labels. Instead, we understand that actually, you can change your behaviour and you make mistakes when you're younger. So, it was important that the anti-bullying teams that I set up in schools had different types of people on it, because it was those experiences that were going to mean more to other students.
I received the Diana Award in 2004 (an honour in memory of Princess Diana given to young change-makers), for tackling bullying and continued to spread it across the country. It started getting written about in school inspections – like Ofsted reports – and eventually I was invited in by Ed Balls, a Labour minister at the time, and his team to talk about my work and the charity, The Diana Award. I used to work in schools a lot, but for the last eight years it has been my full-time job at the charity. Two years ago, I was made Deputy CEO. It's definitely come from that position of pain and has become a real passion and purpose, which is really nice.
What drives you in your mission to end bullying?
The fact that it can be prevented. Whilst it’s not a world problem that can be completely solved or cured – because in a really funny way it’s part of our human DNA – there's always new generations and new hearts and minds to educate and behaviours to change. It's always going to be that thing that is ‘there’. But what we've seen in the schools with Anti-Bullying Ambassadors is that actually they're much safer, happier places because students are sending the clear message that ‘you don't treat others that way: at our school differences are celebrated and you can be who you are.’ Being able to really see the difference definitely spurs me on to try and spread it in more schools. There are 30,000 schools in the UK, and until the government says every school should have Anti-Bullying Ambassadors, then there's a reason for us to continue to exist. Each of those 11,000 hours of your life spent at school should be happy and safe ones.
Sadly, studies have shown that 10-13-year olds who have been exposed to bullying at school will have poorer mental health, poorer job prospects and lack the ability to trust other adults in their workplace by the time they are 50 years old. I know there's been a lot of great progress around mental health, but we've perhaps forgotten that the way we treat each other, particularly at school, can be such a big contributor to whether you have good mental health or whether you thrive in later life, as well.
Are you able to share your personal experience of this?
For me, for a long time I would be worried that the sort of characters that treated me differently at school would exist in the workplace or around the corner in that meeting. That experience stays with you and you become a little bit more cautious. Depending on how much you're exposed to and your personal resilience, I think it can completely change who you are and stop you from reaching your potential. I think I'm lucky that over time, it's become easier for me - and also doing the work - I think it's been a really good way for me to recover and feel better about the situation.
Earlier you mentioned the negative impact of labels such as ‘bully’ or ‘victim’. What language should we use when talking about this kind of situation?
Even the word ‘perpetrator’ is better than 'bully'. We say that someone is displaying ‘bullying behaviour’: they're not a bully, because it's not them. It’s their behaviour. And the same with the victim: if you label someone a victim, it can be difficult for them to shake off that label. So, we try to say someone has ‘been affected by bullying’ or has ‘experienced bullying’ rather than saying that person is a victim because that shouldn't define them.
One of our proudest campaigns is that we managed to change the dictionary definition of the word ‘bullying’. Dictionaries used to describe bullying as ‘happening to people that are weaker’. We thought that was wrong. So, we spoke to young people about it and got their opinion and then we recruited celebrities – Will Poulter, Cel Spellman, Millie Bobby Brown and Richard Branson – and asked them to campaign for this change. I think Collins went first and eventually the Google definition changed.
'Speaking out' is the first step to reclaiming power as a victim yet this is often the hardest part. What advice can you give to those being bullied who do not feel comfortable speaking out? Who should they speak to?
There is still this stigma that you can be weak if you admit that you've been through it, but it's not about being weak: it actually takes a lot of strength. You have to be a pretty strong person to go through it and then speak out.
It was interesting talking to Will and Cel in the panel about how to have these hard conversations - because you are going to have to have a lot of them in your life - but I find it helpful to practise in the mirror, or record your voice first. It sounds funny, but through practising you have already vocalised and verbalised it, so are able to then take that conversation to someone. Writing a letter, or email, or text is also really strong. But you've got to try and find that strength. And maybe it's also about choosing carefully who you tell because, as Cel said, you want somebody that says, ‘Let's face this together.’ That helps you stay in control. But I think you have to speak out, because (particularly if you're at school), you’ve got to give people the chance to become aware of how you're feeling. If not, though, the fantastic thing about the internet is that you can ask things that you are embarrassed about and you will find the support.
Unfortunately, a common narrative is that the bullied become the bullies in later life. How do we change this up and encourage vulnerable people to open up rather than close off?
I think that's a good point. If you’ve been treated that way, you might think well, ‘that's what I’ve got to do to survive or be successful.’ A lot of people we work with are able to reflect and recognise that sometimes their behaviour has crossed the line. And in that sense, please don't be afraid to equally get advice from friends: ask your friends to keep you in check and agree that if one of your friends crosses line, you're going to tell them.
Particularly if you've got a sibling or a parent who perhaps displays some of bullying behaviours, don't feel that you necessarily need to copy them. Hopefully you might be able to realise that those behaviours are really toxic and not going to help you in the modern world and workplace. I think it's important you try and realise that now rather than later because you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. Also, on social media – there is something called the Malicious Communications Act, which means if you use technology to abuse or harass someone, then you could find that it's against the law. You’ve got to remember some of those things because ultimately, this is your future and you're not only affecting other people's futures, but you could also really be affecting yours.
What are your recommendations for closure - how do we move past, forgive and forget? Is 'forgive and forget' always the best policy?
If you can forgive people, particularly if it happened during your childhood, then that's a good thing to do. For me, I do realise that the people I knew at school are not the same people now - and actually, I don't think they realised the impact of their behaviour on me, so I can give them the benefit of the doubt. I think it'd be a problem if they were still that way but they’re not. However, if you don't want to be associated with these people, then that is also valid. If it means totally unfriending and disassociating from them in order to protect your mental health, then that's a positive thing to do.
One thing I've learnt throughout my conversations at BBG is that the notion of what we now call 'toxic masculinity' is embedded during school years. What has been your perception of this having worked with schoolchildren? How do we break that mould?
I think it's getting so much better, and media has been very helpful in this change because you no longer feel necessarily alone. Whereas perhaps there wasn’t always such access, you can pretty much now feel connected to all different types of men: you can see men in drag; you see men dance; being creative; cry. In schools, the curriculum is getting better: everyone has enrichment options so both boys and girls have the opportunity to do ballet or street dance or whatever. So, it's a shifting a little bit there – but I think we're still not being taught about it. Although, if you think about it, it is quite a difficult topic for some teachers (who the majority are probably 40 years old plus) and don’t necessarily have an easy understanding of the issue. It's a difficult thing to do if you don't have the confidence to address it and have the difficult conversation with your students… Maybe it comes back to the point that in schools we’re not very good at having conversations or asking questions. Even though kids are so inquisitive and curious, we probably don't help them answer some of these big questions or increase their understanding. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but certainly masculinity is a lot more visible in its shapes and forms.
You are an Instagram safety partner. Tell me about your role. What are social media companies doing to make the internet a safer place?
I think one of the biggest things I've learned through my activism work is to be brave and to reach out to people. When I was around 23, I reached out to Facebook and just sent an email. It sounds stupid when you think about it, but I managed to get to the right person because I ended up in a very small office in Covent Garden with the Vice President of Policy for Europe, Middle East and Africa! He basically asked me what I thought they could do better, and that started my journey and relationship with them. Three years ago, Facebook began funding the Schools Programme, so now any secondary school that wants the Anti-Bullying Ambassador Programme gets it for free thanks to Facebook.
This year, Instagram are coming on board as a separate brand. Instagram has a really interested mission: it says it wants to be the leading platform in the fight against online bullying. So, as part of that, I'm one of the Safety Partners who is a trusted person and organisation which they'll go to for advice around some of the decisions they're making. So far we’ve been involved in testing the removal of likes. The good thing about that is you will still be able to see your own likes but other people won't get that number, so maybe you’ll feel less pressure about it. Another thing that we've helped with is called a ‘comment nudge’ or ‘mean comment filter’. This again is being trialled, but if you write something nasty, it might ask you if you really want to post it. The difficulty with this is that it’s context based, though. So, you might have a joke between a friend which the filter might try and censor - or rather might encourage you to censor. These things will be optional, but it's an interesting idea and certainly something we want to try more of.
It’s good to have access to the social media companies. They have a really difficult job, actually, because they're trying to balance freedom of speech versus being harmed online. What we also have to remember is that a lot of this is about human behaviour. It's not necessarily about the platform: it's about how we treat each other as humans. Platforms can only put so much in place to manage that, and at the end of the day, we have a lot of choices. As I said, because bullying or abuse relies on context, you can't just say you're going to ban every word that is racist because you might be needing to use that word to raise awareness of the issue.
What should social media etiquette look like?
A lot of people say things like, ‘well, if you wouldn't say to someone's face, then don’t say online.’ And I agree with that to an extent. But I do fall back to this idea that you should stop and THINK. THINK means don't post something if it's not True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary or Kind. If it's not one of those five things, is it worth saying?
Through this work, I’ve become very good friends with Monica Lewinsky. She's obviously got a real story which is grounded in history - and again, I just reached out to her through social media and she’s become one of my very good friends – but she has this saying: ‘click with compassion’. And I think it makes a lot of sense, because if we don't want those negative, gossipy stories or abuse, then we shouldn't click on some of those news media headlines, or we shouldn't click on some of our friends posts or those meme pages that are just nasty. Again, it comes down to human behaviour and choices. It’s about thinking, ‘If I was on the receiving end of this news article or this post, how would I feel?’ Perhaps if we all become more compassionate in our surfing of the Internet and use of social media, then the world could be a kinder place. I think this is true definitely in light of Caroline Flack, who was bullied herself in school. From the conversations she and I had, she definitely felt the impact of bullying at school, but it also goes to show the online world can have a big impact on you as a person.
Why are you passionate about mental health?
I'm passionate about participating in discussions about mental health because it feels as though historically, the stigma surrounding it has lead to people suffering in silence. Conversations about physical health are by comparison far more regular and uninhibited. I believe that the subject of mental health should be one that people feel free to participate in without fear or shame and it feels as though we have to start by deconstructing the societal boundaries around it as a topic. It is after all something that is part of the human experience.
Do you have a personal story to share?
I'm very lucky to have had amazing support from family, friends and colleagues in conversations about mental health. Some of the most rewarding experiences I've had, have come through communicating with loved ones on the subject and sharing our feelings. To be able to gain and offer support from those closest to you is really rewarding.
Any learnings you made from your own experiences?
Introducing routine and structure into my life has been the most stabilising thing for me. I try to find time in my day, wherever and however possible, for things that are good for your mental wellbeing. Whether its physical exercise, reading, healthy eating, a great film or TV show or something like meditation... making any of these things part of my daily practice has helped bring a sense of calm and order to my life.
Any tips you want to share with our readers?
I heard a great quote from legendary comedian Joan Rivers. She said "I wish I could tell you it gets better. It doesn't get better" (which initially sounds pessimistic, but she goes on) "You get better." I connected to this personally because I think it speaks to a real truth about self-development and how we are able to improve our experience through acknowledgement of our mental health and leading lives in order to take care of it.
Why are you passionate about mental health?
Only recently over the last few years has it really entered the mainstream conversation and we've begun to understand it. There's a long, long way to go yet, but the way we're going to make that progress is by having these conversations and making it an important priority for everybody: getting it at the forefront of everybody's mind and on the forefront of everybody's lips. We seem to be so bang on it with physical health but mental health doesn't get the same attention, but it's the biggest theme that constantly pops up, even on the Sunday Radio 1 show.
You had your own experiences with bullying whilst at boarding school. Do you have any learnings from this?
I read it all the time and it's said by everyone - but it's said for a reason - and that is just to talk about it. We're now at a point where conversation is definitely happening more and we're equipping ourselves better to deal with our mental health. Also my practice of mindfulness and meditation has definitely grown over the last five years or so from when I was at boarding school, and that's probably one of the biggest lessons I've taken: being able to check in with yourself and bring yourself back to the present moment. Finding that moment of calm. Trying to let things go. I'm still at the start of that journey, though. I think due to the nature of my work, with acting, you're constantly having to put yourself in other peoples' minds and think differently, so in that respect maybe I've been onto my mental health a little bit quicker. But it's all relative to the individual - like so many people, I worry about my overthinking; anxieties that I have, but it's definitely something that is present in my every day life.
Have you any sort of tips or advice to share with our readers?
Try to get rid of those habits in your routine that maybe aren't conducive to you being the best version of yourself. Breaks from your phone and social media - I can't stress enough. A big belief for me that I'm always going on about is that nature is our best friend. Looking back in history, we've developed this disconnect and separation that's growing and growing but what we need to do is try to shorten that gap. You don't have to go as far as I do and go hug some trees… but I'd highly recommend going to hug a few trees!
Hug a tree?
Yep. I can appreciate a good tree. I've been known to be out and about and be taken by a tree. I'll be like, 'Is it just me or is anyone seeing how beautiful that tree is?' and then I feel like I'm just going to have to go spend some time with the tree. Time spent with a tree is some of the best time you could ever spend, honestly. Even if it's just going to your local park or that bit of green space on your corner.
Obviously being in a city makes it more difficult, but it can be as silly as a few plants that you keep on a balcony or in your flat. Having that habitual routine of getting up and watering them, and trimming them away - that 15-20 minutes is a form of meditation without you even realising it. Even just going for a run, or a walk rather than getting the tube somewhere. If it’s going to add 20 minutes onto the journey, do the walk - you'll feel so much better for it. I spend a lot of time in London and even where we are now – this area is one of my runs that I do by the water. It’s good for me. The trees are harder to come by in London, though. I will say that!
KENNY ETHAN JONES
Why are you passionate about mental health?
It's something I've always struggled with. So, trying to find the balance of maintaining good mental health is something that I've always had an interest in, because I just feel like, you can't give your hundred percent to the world if you're not in a good state of mind. I like the idea of people learning from others - you know, evolution is how we become better. That's why I've used my voice.
Do you have a personal story to share?
Being trans obviously has a lot to do with my mental health. I started transitioning at 11 - I'm 25 now - so that was a time when 'transgender' wasn't even a word. It was so unheard of. Feeling like I was the only one, I felt very isolated and that obviously took a toll on my mental health. Not having anybody really to share that experience with: no peers to look up to because I didn't see anybody and if they did exist, they weren't accessible. Also in my work - putting myself in the firing line of everything. Being a spokesperson, as a trans man of colour, you essentially open yourself up to so much abuse; so much questioning that people wouldn't ask normally but they feel that they can because you're more accessible. All of those things wear on your mental health so I think it's definitely important to discuss, because I don't want it to seem like Instagram creates this pretty highlight of my life. There are definitely many, many tough times which I go through in work and in my personal life and it’s important to discuss both because you should know about everything going into it.
Being a spokesperson, how do you manage that conflict – or is it something you’ve made peace with?
I don’t think you ever make your peace with it. It always will feel somewhat like emotional labour, because it is – you’re talking about your personal experiences. It's weird, recently I found myself talking on a stage in front of hundreds of people, and I feel like the story I'm saying isn't mine. That’s the way you have to detach yourself. You're still emotionally connected when you're not in front of all those people, but that's the front essentially that you have to put up in order to get through it. Some of it's very harsh: the most traumatising things you've ever experienced, and you're saying this to hundreds of people. I would say I probably do around one talk a week – one talk every two weeks. It’s talking about traumatising things because those are the things that need to change.
At what point did you realise that you wanted to be a spokesperson for this?
I became a spokesperson in the media after I got offered my first campaign. I’d been a signed model for six years at the time, and my modelling agency emailed me and said, ‘hey, we've got a period company that wants to work with you. It's about a campaign to do periods.’ I was like, you know, 'are you speaking to the right person here?' At the time it was a very difficult decision to make, because I didn't know what was to come from it, but I knew the hate which I could receive. The hate I received was even from trans men who didn't want to accept that periods were part of their experience - and from women who felt I was trying to take away from women's spaces.
My reasons for doing the campaign were firstly to voice that trans men have periods but secondly, equality, because if period products weren’t gendered then pink tax wouldn't exist. So essentially, my reasoning was good, and I felt like I was attacked by all the communities I was trying to help. But after that campaign I had a lot of other organisations reach out to me and I had a decision to make. I said to myself, Am I going to do this? Am I going to spend the rest of my life essentially talking about my experience? There was a lot to weigh but my end thought was, ‘will it do good for the world?’ The answer was yes. And I said, ‘if that's how I feel I should probably do this. But if I ever get to a point where I feel really uncomfortable or that I can't do this anymore, then I quit.’ But as time has gone on, I built my skin thicker so I can take a lot more. Kenny two years ago would never have thought that I could even take this much or that I'd be in this place. The fact I'm still here, and I'm striving and I'm achieving so much says that my voice is needed. So I will continue to do so.
Do you have any learnings from your experiences?
The number one I would say is understanding different spectrums of being human in general. It's easy to not be inclusive if you don't understand that somebody else exists or their experience. Even small things I didn't used to pay attention to, like disabled people and their ability to get into spaces. When I do events, am I thinking about those people or people that are hard of hearing or deaf - do I have a person that is doing sign language so they are able to take in this information? I kind of came into this work not necessarily meaning to be selfish, but I was only thinking about the trans community. But then as I started to explore the more nuances within the situation, I started to care more, and learn so much more. Everybody needs to move forward so we can come to a place of equality, and how we do that is by lifting up one another. So I needed to learn all of that. That, plus doing your research on companies.
Why are you passionate about mental health?
It’s something that everyone deals with - even if they have good mental health, there's something that can always be worked on. I've dealt with a bunch of issues and I'm someone that is just now 20, so growing up and being a teenager - feeling like everything's happening to you at once - coming out of that and recognising that my audience is my age and younger, I felt like if it’s helped me to talk about my own experiences, then it'd be helpful to someone else.
At what point did you realise or decide that you wanted to advocate against bullying?
I'm going to keep it 100% honest. I never had it in my head that I wanted to advocate for bullying specifically. I was always just telling my story and a lot of them happened to be around bullying and dealing with negative people in school - things to do with my race; to do with my hobbies. I was the only mixed race kid in school - and obviously that came with some issues. But the thing is, I don't really label myself an activist because I feel like if you're going to be known as that, then this is what you do - you go hard. I'm just someone that likes to speak my mind when I'm feeling some type of way.
Looking back, of course I had thoughts like, 'Am I just being too emotional?' but at the same time, a lot of people have come up to me in the street and told me how my perspective has helped them. That's when it felt like there was a deeper meaning to social media. At the peak of Snapchat, I was getting 100,000 people watching my story where I would just talk non-stop. Maybe like 6,000 people would get through it, but that's a lot of people. Now I reflect on that, I'm like, ‘Oh shit these kids are very impressionable!’ And whilst they might be connecting with what I'm saying now, am I misinforming them? I don't think I have done that…but it's something I'm aware of. Unfortunately, I've kind of fallen out of social media a bit, although I recognise my influence and how much good can be spread. Right now, I've just been on a break and I feel much healthier. I feel like I'm on ground zero, you know?
Do you have any learnings from your experiences?
It's taught me a lot about ignorance and ego. There is this one girl in my mind that I think about every once in a while, who got bullied a lot at school. I remember thinking, 'Oh, I don't want to be involved in this.' I never bullied the girl - but I wasn't there for her either. And I have to check myself on that. I've asked myself, am I a good person? I believe that I am. But when you're a kid at school, and are that young and impressionable, you're really just doing everything to protect your own self, and sometimes it's at the expense of other people. It's not cool.
Tell me about your break from social media.
I feel great. I feel like it's so much easier to focus. Where I was spending so much time on social media, I was anxious all the time. I was comparing myself all the time; telling myself I'm not good enough. I was going down a spiral. I was doing everything to not help me - I wasn't eating and so dropped so much weight. I became super anxious about being in public - I was getting Ubers everywhere because I didn't want to be seen by anyone. I'm more clear in the head now. I can handle myself in public – I don’t care for it. We're all just people, here doing our things. I guess clarity is what I'm searching for and what is helping me right now. When I'm not clear in my mind, that's when all the anxiety creeps in and I start being less rational.
For the full panels, head to Boys by Girls YouTube.
The Diana Award Crisis Messenger
The youth charity provides free, 24/7 crisis support across the UK. If you are a young person in crisis, you can text DA to 85258. Trained volunteers will listen to how you’re feeling and help you think the next step towards feeling better.