I had the exciting opportunity to interview Springwatch presenter and University of Southampton alumnus Chris Packham. We talked uni life, mental health and, well, badgers…
Chris Packham attended the university back in the 80s and studied Zoology. He went on to present CBBC’s The Really Wild Show from 1985 to 1996 and has been presenting BBC nature series Springwatch since 2009. According to Chris, he has ‘the best job in the world’.
But even the most successful among us can be touched by mental health problems. Packham opened up about his very mixed university experience:
My time at Southampton broke into two very discernibly different experiences, one of which was enormously positive and the other, which was phenomenally negative. The positive was the education and I am satisfied to this day that I was fortunate enough to be in the right place with exactly the right sort of people. The support that I had from my lecturers and my tutor was unparalleled.
While the academic side of Chris’ degree proved to be very rewarding, he found adapting to the university social life to be very difficult.
I was in a very difficult place mentally at that time and I really was struggling. I was a very angry young man and I couldn’t communicate with my peers at all. I wouldn’t speak to anyone and no one spoke to me.
Packham has been diagnosed with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, a sub-type of Autism, which he revealed in his recent autobiography. While this has been debilitating at times, Chris has overcome his condition to establish a successful television career.
I think it is fair to say that Packham is badger-mad, having studied them for many years. In fact, while reminiscing about his quirky style choices at university, he told me about the time he actually dyed to his hair to look like a badger!
Yes so I had black hair with these two white stripes running through it. And I just remember, I used to go into my tutor’s office and he wouldn’t say anything.
Unfortunately, his fellow peers were not quite so accepting. ‘All of the people my age couldn’t relate to that at all and it was quite ostracising. I stuck out like a very sore thumb’.
In spite of these difficulties, Chris managed to excel in his undergraduate degree and pursue an exciting career. Landing his first presenting job was both exciting and challenging:
I did have to get a handle on my social abilities so it was quite stressful. It was just having to work in teams and being able to engage with people which I just couldn’t do at that point and I realised I needed to quite rapidly. It was enormously pleasurable because obviously people would come along and put exciting animals in my lap like falcons and cheetahs. But at the same time, I had to learn to look people in the eye and communicate with them more effectively. I could talk to a piece of glass – that was easy. But it was difficult talking to the director and to my associates. I managed to muddle through and it seemed to work.
In other interviews, Packham has admitted that he has suffered from severe depression and contemplated suicide on two occasions. But he reflected that there is a lot more support in place these days for people suffering with mental health problems and those living with autism. Chris has developed strategies to cope with his Asperger’s and learnt to see his condition as an asset. Wessex Scene are very grateful that Chris Packham took the time to speak with us and applaud him for his honest and inspiring interview.
Fun Fact: Given the opportunity to start his life over, Chris admits that he probably would have gone to Art College!