Naturalist and presenter Chris Packham has had enough of celebrities who won't stand up for anything,
“If you have a voice, you’ve got to use it for good,” the presenter claims emphatically. “I find myself restraining my contempt with my peers who don’t use their position creatively.”
Celebrities who express support in private, but refuse to speak out publicly, are neglecting the responsibilities and privileges their position gives them, he believes. “I just think, what do you do with your public platform? Apart from enjoying the limelight and collecting the money, what do you stand up for?
“My public persona is less important than trying to make public change. I’d rather face criticism or the ridicule or the embarrassment for speaking out than I would not speaking out and letting my voice be wasted.”
Packham, best known for his work on The Really Wild Show and Springwatch, uses his platform to campaign on a range of issues including fox-hunting, the treatment of animals and of bees, and the environment. However recently he has been campaigning to raise awareness of mental illness – something he has struggled with in the past as a result of his Asperger’s.
He opened up about having been diagnosed with the condition in 2016, noting that only his close friends and family had been aware of the diagnosis he received in the early 2000s. Growing up with undiagnosed Asperger's was hard for the teenaged Packham who struggled to fit in, and make friends, and his mental health suffered as a result.
“In our house, mental health was a complete taboo. It didn’t exist. You could have a heart attack, you could cut your leg and bleed, but you couldn’t be depressed,” he says. “We’ve grown into a world where people still don’t talk about it.… I just make wildlife programmes, but if I can say I’ve endured periods where my mental health was compromised to the point where I thought about killing myself – luckily I didn’t – then that will create a platform for discussion.”
Packham has been speaking off the back of the RTS nominated documentary that he fronted, Chris Packham: Asperger’s and Me.
The ambition was to provide an insight into his life – the good and the bad. Within the programme, Packham explains his thought processes at any given moment, or the way that his brain is processing and focusing on different sounds around him. “I wanted to make a more experiential piece, saying to people ‘this is what it’s like in my world’. It’s not all negative. It was negative - very negative at times – and to be candid about that as well.”
The reaction to the documentary has been overwhelmingly positive – as demonstrated by its RTS nomination and Bafta award. However it is the feedback from the autistic community that Packham has found most touching. “[Making the documentary] has opened many number of doors for me to spread the word that we’re not disabled. We’re actually enabled.” He has been working with large companies, including Nationwide, around the country to explain how those with Autism and Asperger’s can be a positive addition to their workforce, and discussed with them future recruiting and employment policy.
However his work also hits closer to home: he speaks to school-aged children about growing up with the condition. “There’s no doubt that, as a child – particularly in the later stages of childhood - that’s the toughest time. It was hideous when I think back on it. Things get better as soon as you can take control of your life and make decisions about where you are, what you do, when you do it.”
“I wanted young people to see [the film] and go, ‘well, that bloke went through an enormous amount of inner shit, distress, depression, but he’s come out the other side and while everything’s not brilliant, he’s got a life’.” The condition, he says, affords him opportunities that he wouldn’t otherwise have, such as his broadcasting career.
However he is keen to help where he can, particularly with young people who stuggle with their autism. He remotely mentors several young people with Asperger’s who approached him on social media or at events. “I’ve been trying to work with them to inject a little bit of hope into their lives. The support they get from their parents is remarkable, and they’ve got some really dedicated people and therapists, but nonetheless some of them are having really tough times," he admits.
“I’m not a therapist. I’m not a medically trained practitioner. I am merely a bloke with Asperger’s… but I do what I can.”