From his bromance stealing the show on Love Island 2017, to skating up a storm on Dancing on Ice, the nation may have fallen in love with Kem Cetinay and his cheeky persona in recent years, but there’s a lot more going on behind that smile than people realise.
As Childline’s first mental health campaigner, Kem is on a journey to open up about his experiences to help young people understand and get support for their mental health. Here, he speaks candidly about his anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal thoughts. But, most importantly, how he’s working through it all with the love and support of his family
A few hours before Kem Cetinay meets Happiful, he was at the ITV studios in west London having ‘a moment’ before an appearance on Loose Women alongside Chris Hughes – his best pal and fellow star of Love Island 2017. The pair had been asked to dress up as sexy Santas and at the last minute to appear minus their shirts, and for Kem it was not, repeat not, happening.
To those who watched the 22-year-old barber on the hit ITV2 show, this probably sounds confusing.
Anyone who spends an entire summer being filmed in their swimwear must be dripping in confidence, right? Not exactly.
In the weeks since returning from filming I’m A Celebrity… Extra Camp in Australia, Kem says he has been less of a slave to the gym, and it’s slightly impacted his self-esteem. But his backstage wobble tells a bigger story – of an ongoing battle with anxiety, which began 12 years ago, and how it can be triggered by “the smallest things”, including spontaneous changes to plans.
“If we’re going somewhere, I need to know what’s going on, everything that’s happening. I don’t like something happening that might not be what I want it to be and, right now, I don’t feel comfortable with my top off, so I was freaking out saying to Chris: ‘I don’t want to do it’,” explains Kem. “I do need to develop my self-confidence. It still needs a lot of improving.”
Anxiety, Kem claims, doesn’t define him, but since becoming one of the UK’s most in-demand reality TV stars, with an ITV2 spin-off show You Vs Chris and Kem, his mental health story has been well-documented. It’s why last summer he was invited by children’s counselling charity Childline to be a mental health campaigner – their first – and the reason we’re sitting, just the two of us, in the hair and make-up room of a photography studio in east London, discussing the time when Kem’s mental health issues began – aged 11, when doctors gave his mum, Figen, just 24 hours to live after she contracted septicaemia and fell into a coma following a hysterectomy.
“I remember going to the hospital and dad told me I had to say goodbye, that it was going to be the last time I would see my mum. She was so ill and I couldn’t get my head around it, because she was fine the last time I’d seen her,” says Kem, shaking his head. “I’ve never experienced anything that intense in my whole life. I felt like I was losing everything, because my mum is my best friend.”
I’ve never experienced anything that intense in my whole life. I felt like I was losing everything
By a miracle, Figen pulled through but took a long time to recover, and Kem became fiercely protective, often refusing to be separated from her for fear she would leave him.
“She had to sleep in my room in a bed next to me until I was 13, and I never stayed at friends’ houses,” he says. “Whenever I tried, I felt lost and would cry, and mum would come and pick me up. I wasn’t young at this age; I had just started secondary school. It took a big toll on me.”
Kem saw a series of therapists to try to combat his separation anxiety, but the situation worsened four years later when an operation to remove his tonsils went wrong and his kidneys started to fail. Kem, then a semi-professional footballer, struggled to eat and “lost loads of weight”. He became so weak he could no longer play sport, which badly affected his confidence.
“I was in such a bad way,” says Kem, who remembers his first panic attack on board a London train, a terrifying experience where he was “dripping in sweat and losing breath. I felt like I was going to die.”
From there, he “plummeted down”, and once-normal activities, including going to restaurants, became impossible due to the frequency of the panic attacks. During a fortnight family holiday to Mexico, Kem never once left his hotel room, and by his GCSEs, he was a recluse at the family home in Gidea Park, Essex, only attending school to sit exams he hadn’t studied a moment for.
“I took three, passed two, and didn’t do the rest,” admits Kem.
Mum said she knew I was bad, because she found a book I used to write in. She said it contained some of the darkest things she’d ever read
Were his mum and dad concerned?
“Mum and dad were more concerned about me being alright than worrying about my schooling,” he replies, gazing towards the studio where retired fashion designer Figen, who frequently accompanies her son on work commitments, is sitting. Later, when Kem is in front of the camera, she explains how proud she is, seeing how far he has come since the days and nights he would lock himself away in his bedroom. During those times, Figen’s only way of communicating with Kem was via text. She would sit on the floor outside his door, typing words of love and encouragement, silent tears streaming down her face.
The guilt Kem felt over the pain he believes he caused Turkish Cypriots Figen, and her pharmaceutical engineer husband Niyazi, contributed to him feeling suicidal.
“I was scared of the thought of feeling it, but I felt it,” he admits. “I felt like I had no use and I’m such a family person [so] the impact it was having on my family, I thought: ‘This is really not fair.’
“Mum said she knew I was bad, because she found a book I used to write in. She said it contained some of the darkest things she’d ever read, that it would be easier to not be alive because I was such a burden on everyone else.”
Shortly after, Kem was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. He was eventually prescribed antidepressants, which he only took for a week because they made him groggy, and saw a long list of therapists, counsellors and even a hypnotherapist. Finding a specialist he trusted and whose methods worked was tough.
“They were going about it the wrong way,” explains Kem. “One asked me to bring a hand fan with me to calm me down, but there were deeper thoughts to it than that.”
The breakthrough came just before his 16th birthday when Figen discovered a local therapist who “took a really different approach”, guiding Kem through breathing and meditative techniques, and teaching him to mentally stay in control during the terrifying panic attacks.
“One day I felt really anxious, and she locked the door and said: ‘I want to prove to you that you can get through it, you’re mentally strong enough.’ I started having a panic attack. I was pacing the room, sweating and getting nervous, then eventually I calmed down. She’d timed it and the attack had lasted four minutes. I still use that [approach] now to help. When I get really anxious, I think: ‘It’ll be done in a few minutes.’ She gave me control of my own body.”
To read more of Kem's exclusive chat with us, pick up the February issue of Happiful in supermarkets from Thursday 17 January.
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