“Mental health affects all of us in one way or another,” said Dr Alan Watkins, founder and CEO of Complete Coherence, introducing panellists Alastair Campbell, writer, communicator and strategist, and Geoff McDonald, former VP for HR at Unilever. Both have experienced mental illness firsthand and now campaign to raise awareness and reduce stigma.
“As a physician, I came up close and personal on many occasions with people who are challenged by this,” explained Watkins. “I also have four sons, one of whom is profoundly autistic, and I lost my beautiful sister to suicide 20 years ago. So it touches all of our lives.”
Before taking questions from the audience, Campbell and McDonald shared their personal experiences of mental ill-health. Campbell talked of his breakdowns and opening up to former prime minister Tony Blair about his history, prior to becoming his spokesperson and strategist, and of his brother, who had schizophrenia.
McDonald described being diagnosed with anxiety-fuelled depression in 2008, and the devastating suicide of a friend four years later: “I thought: ‘stigma has just killed my friend,” said McDonald. “Had he had any physical illness
he would have put his hand up and he would have got support. I lay in bed and thought ‘I have to do something about this’.”
“So much of this is about employers,” argued Campbell, praising the way in which his brother’s employer for 27 years, Glasgow University, saw the valuable person behind the illness.
McDonald added: “Organisations need to recognise mental health as a key component of people’s overall wellbeing; if you get it right, it enhances the energy of that person. I spent 25 years in HR but never once had a conversation with any team member about their energy, the most important driver of their performance.”
Both men agreed that the way mental health is perceived must change.
“I don’t use the word breakdown,” said McDonald. “It was my breakthrough in life. I don’t like the word resilience; I prefer resourcefulness. This narrative, the way we talk about mental ill health, is so important.”
“Until we crash down the walls of stigma, people are going to carry on feeling they can’t talk about it,” acknowledged Campbell.