Alastair Campbell: It's not brave to talk about mental health

Written by
Karam Filfilan

13 Nov 2018

13 Nov 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

Breakdowns, alcoholism and depression – Alastair Campbell has experienced the full range of mental health issues during his extraordinary career. So why are people so scared to talk about mental health at work?

“My breakdown was like an explosion in my head. I felt the pressure building and building. Neil Kinnock was giving a speech and I was walking around thinking everybody was talking about me, whispering to each other.

“I play the bagpipes like my brother Donald did. I was panicking and I saw this guy cycling past with bagpipes. I remember that being real. I stopped him and said ‘excuse me mate, is this happening because of Donald?’ He looked at me and just walked on. Then I thought that the letters on the number plates of cars going past were sending me messages  hat if I failed to understand, I’d die.”

The year is 1986 and Alastair Campbell, 29, is news editor at the Today paper, covering then Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s tour of Scotland. After a drinking binge the night before – and several years of alcohol abuse – Campbell’s head is a cacophony of noise. He is acting erratically, dumping his hire car near a roundabout and trying, but failing, to phone his partner, Fiona Millar.

After emptying the contents of his pockets onto the floor, two plain-clothed police officers arrest him and he’s taken to Hamilton police station, where he strips naked in the cell. The next day, he’s admitted to Ross Hall Hospital in Glasgow.

“On the drive to the hospital, every single road sign was talking to me, giving me messages,” he continues. “Everything was political – I had a whole thing about left and right, blue and red. I got into the bed at the hospital and there was this colour-coded chart that went from left to right describing your mood. The problem was the blue started on the left and the red on the right. It did my head in,” says Campbell.

“Even when the doctor came in and asked ‘are you all right?’, I saw the politics. I said ‘is this what this is about? Are you trying to make me right wing?’ It was all about the politics,” he adds, shaking his head.

Campbell and his politics are inextricably linked in the minds of the public. After his breakdown, he stopped drinking and rebuilt his journalistic career at the Daily Mirror before returning to Today as political editor. After Tony Blair won the Labour Party leadership in 1994, Campbell left journalism to become his press secretary.

The pressure of politics

Over the next nine years Campbell became indispensable to the Labour machine. He co-ordinated two successful general election campaigns (returning in 2005 to help Blair to a third victory) but became notorious for his ruthless media management and persona as Tony Blair’s fixer. This culminated in the 2003 Iraq dossier affair, where Campbell was accused of ‘sexing up’ intelligence findings into Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capability and leaking the name of scientist Dr David Kelly to the press; Kelly subsequently committed suicide. Campbell and the government were exonerated by the Hutton Inquiry, but Campbell resigned in August 2003 to spend more time with his family.

“Initially, I didn’t want to do it (go into politics). I knew it would be difficult for my personal wellbeing and the family. Fiona was totally against it and it became an ongoing tension. Being honest, there were times when I loved the feeling of being indispensable and times when I resented it,” he says.

Campbell’s mental health was a constant issue throughout his time in politics; according to his Diaries, by 2003, he was “feeling depressed” most days. Despite his resignation, Campbell says he “never really left” government and by 2006, tensions with Millar were reaching crisis point. Simultaneously, Campbell was at the heart of the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown disintegration, with Blair just a year away from stepping down.

“I remember saying to Fiona ‘my head is in a fucking vice’. You don’t know where it’s going to go. That’s the time I ended up beating myself up,” he grimaces.

The incident took place on Hampstead Heath in the midst of
another blazing row with his wife about his working life. Confronting what looked like the end of their 27-year relationship, Campbell began punching himself repeatedly in the face, terrifying his wife who’d nursed him through his first psychotic episode back in Hamilton.

He reports in his Diaries that he shouted at Millar: “You asked me to leave and I left!”

“And now you’re virtually back and it’s making you ill,” she retorted. “I am not ill,” he screamed, his eye starting to swell.  “But I knew I was,” he writes. Twenty years on, he’d come full  circle.  

Family history

Campbell is an ambassador for the Time to Change  campaign and was voted Mind champion of the year in 2009. Alongside his own mental health issues, he cites his brother Donald’s schizophrenia as the motivation for his campaigning, recalling the shock of his diagnosis.

“Donald was in the Scots Guards and we got a call saying he’d been taken ill and was in hospital near Southampton. We went down there and he wasn’t himself. He was sedated, paranoid, seeing things that weren’t there. His eyes were not the eyes we knew,” recalls Campbell.

Their father, a self-employed vet, had to return to work. This left the teenage Campbell to stay with his brother, sleeping in his car and spending all day in a military psychiatric ward, where patients were viewed as potential deserters.

Donald returned to live with their parents and, under medication, was able to work, drive and own a house. He worked for 27 years in the security department of Glasgow University, also acting as the principal’s official bagpiper, playing at graduations and ceremonies. Campbell says he was a man with schizophrenia, not a schizophrenic.

How did Donald’s diagnosis affect Campbell? “Sometimes I wonder whether it partly caused my depression. It was so traumatic. I remember hearing voices when I had my breakdown in 1986 and being convinced I was going the same way,” says Campbell.

“When I was hospitalised, I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t want to put them through it again.”

Donald died in 2016, aged 62. “On average, people with schizophrenia live 20 years less than others,” he says. “The drugs make it harder to recover from illnesses and infections. My dad lived to 82, my mum to 88.”

Campbell didn’t speak out about Donald’s illness until after his death as his mother worried public scrutiny would make him more vulnerable. However, he believes the current generation is more open about mental health, citing his son Calum giving talks about his own alcoholism and his daughter Grace blogging about anxiety.

He believes we’re reaching a tipping point when it comes to societal acceptance of mental illness.

“I don’t think it’s brave to talk about mental health. You’re not brave for talking about asthma. All that stuff is stigmatising. That means there’s something odd or special about it. People go back to work after a broken leg or cancer, so why not mental illness?” he asks.

Parity of access

Campbell would like to see parity of access to treatment between mental and physical health. A 2014 Mind report into talking therapies found that half of people who requested therapy had to wait more than three months, with 56% offered no choice of treatment. While waiting for therapy, 67% became more mentally unwell, 40% harmed themselves; one in six attempted suicide.

When you factor in reduced income for mental health trusts – a 2017 report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that trusts received £105m less income in real terms between 2016-17, compared with 2012 – the UK is facing a crisis. One in four adults will experience a mental health episode this year.

“The long-term cost is going to be enormous as we all live longer,” warns Campbell. “It’s cultural. We need to be more open in workplaces, universities and in politics. But you can’t get services without money.”

Openness includes recognising the value that those with mental illness can bring. “It’s time to see the mental health agenda as an opportunity to create a better workforce and change the lens on it,” he says. “Let’s get the sparky, creative, energetic, different people in the room and let them show what they can do.”

You can watch Alastair's full session from the Future Talent Conference here, and read our round-up here