Looking after our mental health is key to our wellbeing. So why are we so scared to talk about it, asks Alastair Campbell?
Alastair Campbell talking to Tony Blair
One in ten children aged 5-16 are affected by depression, anxiety or another clinically diagnosable mental health issue. Despite this, 70% of those diagnosed will not get the help they need at an appropriate age. With cuts to services meaning mental health counselling is increasingly falling on individual teachers within schools, the pressure to make a positive impact on conversations around mental ill health is growing.
Alastair Campbell understands what it’s like to be on both sides of that conversation. Best known for his time as Tony Blair’s press secretary, Campbell is now a mental health campaigner and a previous Mind champion of the year. In 1986, aged just 29, Campbell suffered a psychotic episode when working as a political journalist.
“My breakdown was like an explosion in my head. I felt the pressure building and building. I was walking around thinking everybody was talking about me, whispering to each other.”
“I started talking nonsense to strangers, who looked at me and just walked on. Then I thought that the letters on the number plates of cars were sending me messages that if I failed to understand, I’d die.”
After emptying the contents of his pockets onto the floor, two plain-clothed police officers arrested Campbell and took him to a police station, where he stripped naked in the cell. He was taken to hospital the next day.
“On the drive to the hospital, every single road sign was talking to me, giving me messages. Everything was political – I had a whole thing about left and right, blue and red.
“I got into 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.
Pressure on young people
Campbell’s 1986 breakdown started a lifelong journey in dealing with depression and mental illness. He believes that as a society, we need to get better at recognising the impact of mental health – and that teachers need to be aware of the pressure young people are under.
“Measuring a successful education through final exams and putting kids under such pressure – the need for five A grades, volunteering in a charity, doing 50 internships and having 1000s of friends on Facebook is having an effect,” he says.
However, he is encouraged by how open young people are to talking about mental health. Campbell’s daughter Grace has spoken publically about her own anxiety, while his son Calum has been open about his alcohol addiction. He also cites Professor Green’s documentary on the impact of his father’s suicide and subsequent work on the Heads Together project as having a huge impact on young people.
He believes we’re reaching a tipping point when it comes to societal acceptance of mental health issues.
“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 – bravery, the courage to speak out. That means there is something odd or special about it. People go back to work after a broken leg or cancer, so why not mental illness?” he asks.
Access to treatment
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 treatment had to wait more than three months, with 56% offered no help at all. While waiting for therapy, 67% became more mentally unwell, 40% harmed themselves and 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.
“The long-term cost of this is going to be enormous as we all live longer,” warns Campbell. “It’s cultural. We need to be more open in workplaces, schools and in politics,” Campbell warns.
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 and different people in the room and let them show what they can do.”