Alastair Campbell asks people to support See Change and end mental health stigma

I am delighted to support the See Change ‘Make a Ripple’ campaign by speaking out for you, by speaking about my own experiences and by becoming an Ambassador for you. Hopefully, this story will help others speak out.

When I became Tony Blair’s press secretary, I knew that the ‘skeletons’ would probably come out, so I never hid the fact I’d had a nervous breakdown. I’d always been very open about it, calling it my ‘mad period’. There’s no point pretending I wasn’t mad, because I was, probably for some time up to my breakdown, and then it took quite a while to recover. I think people are disarmed when you’re up front about it. I’ve never had anybody say a bad thing about my breakdown.

It happened in 1986 when I was 29. I’d been a journalist at the Mirror and was poached by Eddy Shah’s Today when it was launched. It was a disaster. I’d left a professional and political base I felt totally at home with and gone somewhere I felt a bit alien. I was over promoted; I hit the bottle pretty hard, got completely manic and cracked.

On the day it finally happened, it was like this piece of glass cracking in slow motion into thousands of pieces inside your head, and you’re struggling to hold it together and the harder you try, the more the glass cracks, and you end up with your head an explosion of sounds and memories and madness.

I was doing a piece on Neil Kinnock in Scotland. I’d got detached from the main party and was picked up by the police for my own safety because I was behaving oddly, putting all my possessions into a little pile in the foyer of the building I was in. Earlier, I’d been driving a hire car and I knew I was incapable of driving properly so I dumped it and called the office and told them to collect it.

The trouble when you’re in that state of mind is that even though you feel odd, you think you’re behaving rationally so you can’t understand why this poor sod in London thinks it odd that you’re telling him to collect a car from a lay-by somewhere in Scotland.

I was in hospital for a few days, heavily drugged, and feeling pretty desperate. I was asked how much I drank, and I went through a recent day’s intake, and as I went through it, it dawned on me: I was drinking vast amounts and had been kidding myself I didn’t have a problem. I was advised to stop drinking and I did which wasn’t easy but got easier with every day.

I was also treated for depression, on medication for a few months. I was really lucky though. Fiona, my partner, was incredibly supportive even though it had been a nightmare for her having seen this thing coming and feeling powerless to do anything about it. I was also lucky in that Richard Stott, who was editor at the Mirror, agreed to take me back as soon as I was in a fit state to work. He’d advised me not to go to Today, was angry that I did, and could easily have joined those who were saying ‘serves him right’. But he gave me a chance and that was a huge thing for me, an act of kindness and support people don’t always get when they hit real trouble.

It’s hard to describe coming out of a breakdown. There’s like a permanent dull ache and occasional stabs of real pain or fear. I can’t help smiling when I hear people say they’re depressed when what they mean is they’re a bit fed up. I do it myself sometimes. But there are not many things as deadening as real depression, when you feel unable to move a muscle and you’re incapable of getting out of bed, or speaking or thinking, or doing anything, and you can’t see a way forward.

I slowly rebuilt myself with help from family and friends. It also sorted out who my real friends were and what really mattered to me, and the next year we had our first child which was brilliant. Of course the breakdown was humiliating on one level – journalism is a very gossipy world and people’s basic take was that this whiz kid had flown too high, fallen flat on his face and ended up in a ‘lunatic asylum’. And I know I was lucky in many ways and if I hadn’t had the support I had it could have ended far, far worse.

But now I look back on it with a real sense of achievement. It was a 24-carat crack up and I’m proud of the fact I got through it, rebuilt myself, did ok as a journalist again and went on to do other things. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done in politics without believing what I believe very strongly, and being tough-minded, focused, mentally and physically fit.

I feel the breakdown, and the recovery played a big part in all that. I was taken to the limit, really close to losing everything, at absolute breaking point and I think over time that turned me into a stronger person. It was in many ways the worst thing that ever happened to me, certainly the scariest, but in other ways the making of me. I’m very conscious of the fact that for many other people a mental breakdown has anything but that effect, that the suffering never stops, so I’ve been lucky. One of the reasons I’ve wanted to be open about it is that I know from my own recovery that it is possible to take strength and hope from the experience of others who’ve gone to what feels like hell and back and lived to tell the tale.

It’s why I did the BBC documentary, Cracking Up. I had the idea while writing my novel, All In The Mind, about a psychiatrist on the verge of his own breakdown, and I’ve been pleased how that has been seen in the mental health field. I have had some fantastic responses to both the film and the book from people with mental illness and from psychiatrists.

The Time to Change campaign in the UK approached me and I was delighted to be able to support them and get involved. I did a lot of media for them, talking about the importance of breaking down the stigma and the taboo surrounding mental health. Many people say the stigma is worse than the illness. I  did a report for them on famous and eminent people in history, like Churchill and Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie and Florence Nighingale, who had what today would be defined as mental illness.

I still get depression from time to time, sometimes mild, sometimes not so mild. It is never nice, but I have learned to accept it as part of who and what I am. And I have developed the insight, every time it comes, that it will eventually go.

In the meantime, I will continue to support mental health campaigns at a time when funding for the public services will come under pressure, and it is important the so-called Cinderella services like mental health do not go to the back of the queue.

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