Mental health

Alastair Campbell takes on the stigma of mental health

The political heavyweight turned advocate is on a mental health mission

can’watch Trump on telly. Brexit is doing my head in. The Labour Party is a very different animal to what it was. It’s all difficult.’ Alastair Campbell is in a good mood. Tony Blair’s former Communications Director and the architect behind New Labour was always rude, bad tempered, difficult to deal with. When he left Number 10 in 2003, newspapers devoted pages to his conflicts, plenty of them listing the abrasive things he’d said, or that had been said about him. He was influential, polarising, controlling. His critics loathed him. His supporters said he was one of a kind.

But how we think about Alastair Campbell is softening. That’s partly the passing of time, but it’s also linked to his role in advancing Britain’s mental health agenda, and to his openness about his struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Throughout his adult life, Campbell has battled mental health problems. In 1986, he had a full-blown psychotic episode while news editor of the long-since defunct Today paper that ended with him being arrested for his own safety (‘I thought I was going to die’). Ever since, he’s had depressions that can render him totally incapacitated.

“Everything I’ve achieved, I don’t feel it’s in spite of mental health problems. It’s because of them”

‘Sometimes I don’t want to be here,’ he admits. ‘I have days where I just want to lie in bed. It’s hard for Fiona [Millar, his partner of 36 years], but we’ve got a much better understanding, through openness, through me not sulking, not shutting down. Now if I wake up feeling depressed, I say to Fiona, ‘f**k this is bad.’ I used to pretend to be asleep and wait until she went out. And then just die within.’

The most recent of these bouts was not long ago. ‘If I were feeling today like I was a couple of weeks ago, you would have sensed I was in a bad mood. I would have been less patient through there [with our photographer]. And then we’d sit down and have this conversation, and I’d be very formulaic. And at the end of it I’d get in the car and feel utterly exhausted. Because I would have had to lift myself to do it. Not being depressed is a lot easier.’

We’re lucky then. Not just because the Malcolm Tucker version of Alastair Campbell appears to be off-duty today, but also because he’s happy to be frank, honest and direct.

Does he think enough is being done in mental health to counter what experts have described as a ticking time bomb? ‘I have a real worry at the moment,’ he says. ‘I think the [mental health] campaigning has been brilliant. Media attitudes are improving. The stigmatising language is slowly disappearing. Politicians have it high up their agenda.

But what I really worry about is that as the campaign for destigmatisation is won, it means more and more people start to be open, but then if they find the services aren’t there that they might need, it becomes very difficult.’

He says those services won’t materialise soon, despite plans announced recently by the Government to recruit an extra 21,000 NHS mental health professionals by 2021, providing an extra £1.3bn of care to treat an extra one million patients. That’s positive, surely?

‘It’s a step in the right direction,’ he cedes. ‘But then we’ve got Brexit. Government can only deal with so many issues at once. It has a limited bandwidth. There are only so many big strategic objectives you can really fulfil. Brexit will consume this Government for the rest of its life. It’s a total disaster.’

So they’re empty words, a sticking plaster? ‘It’s whether they can deliver. There’s going to be less money for the health service. There already is,’ he insists. ‘The economy is going to suffer. Mental health is the easiest to cut. It doesn’t have people up in arms.’

Alastair Campbell was once considered to be the second most powerful man in the country, behind only his boss and long-time friend Tony Blair. The two of them were on holiday in 1994 and in a car together, Blair recruiting Campbell, Campbell fessing up about his issues. ‘I told him all about it, and he said: “I’m not bothered if you’re not bothered.” And I said: “Well I’m bothered.” And he said: “Well, I’m still not bothered.” It was very affirming. Tony had a sense that my mental health problems could be a force.’

Alastair Campbell, The Jackal magazine

A force? ‘I always feel that anything I’ve achieved, I don’t feel it’s in spite of mental health problems, I feel it’s in part because of them. I think they give me an energy and a creativity. When I’m coming out of a depression, for example, I don’t go full on manic, but I do have this demonic energy. And some of the best work I’ve ever done has been when I’ve been in that mode.’

In his latest diaries, covering the transition from Blair to Gordon Brown, he writes of Blair mocking his mental health problems. ‘I didn’t mind,’ says Campbell. ‘You have to keep a sense of humour. I took Tony to task when he was writing about me. He said I was a genius and all that sort of bollocks, and then he said that in his experience there are two sorts of mad people; there are people who are just mad and they’re dangerous, and then there are creative types, and Alastair is one of them. And I said: “Hang on a minute, this is stigmatising – it’s much more complicated than that.” I don’t normally slag Tony off, but I had a go there.’

These days, he’s heavily committed in the mental health space. He’s an ambassador for the charity Time to Change and patron of Maytree, a charity for the suicidal. He co-founded the all-party campaign Equality For Mental Health and recently made a documentary for the Royal Foundation’s Heads Together initiative with Fiona. His late brother Donald, who had schizophrenia, once dubbed him ‘Mr Mental Health’.

But he’s disappointed the story hasn’t moved on faster. In 2009, the charity Mind awarded him Mind Champion of the Year. Accepting the award, he said in a speech that he felt the UK was approaching a tipping point on mental health. ‘That’s really depressing,’ he says, without irony. ‘We’re nearer that point in terms of the campaigning on stigma and taboo, but that has to tip over into provision of services. And I think we’re going backwards on that. The tipping point can only happen when they’re both happening together.’

“We’re on a campaign, a campaign like women’s rights, like apartheid, like gay rights. The point will come…”

That point, he says, will come when mental and physical health problems are treated with parity by the health service and employers, and when children are taught about the link between the two and about the benefits of being open.

‘I’ve been trying to persuade mental health charities to move to one in one,’ he says. ‘We talk about one in four people having mental health problems, but we all have mental health. And if we see it as one in one, maybe we can have everybody owning their mental health.’

What he’s less clear on is why poor mental health is on the up, particularly among young people. According to the London Mental Health Report, at least one in 10 children is thought to have a clinically significant mental health problem, which it calculates as 111,000 young Londoners. Asked for an explanation of this, he’s unsure. ‘I don’t know,’ he says slowly. ‘My daughter’s had terrible anxiety. Most of her friends have. It makes you think if it’s related to the acceleration of the pace of life and the impact of social media. I don’t know.’

Campbell says his openness about his mental health problems has helped him. He sees a psychiatrist, takes anti-depressants, is disciplined about sleep, exercise and diet, barely drinks (he was dry for 13 years after recognising the role alcoholism played in his episode in 1986), and gets a lift from playing the bagpipes in his bathroom (‘The neighbours love it. They complain if I don’t play them.’). Would he recommend all sufferers be so open?

‘It’s a very personal decision,’ he says. ‘Charles Kennedy and I used to talk a lot about whether he should be open. He was worried about what his constituents would think, what the media would say, what his colleagues would say, so he struggled on. And look what happened. I have never regretted it.’

His views on mental health, campaigning and cross-party work have won him new admirers, sometimes in unexpected quarters. He remembers a Twitter spat with (‘of all people’) Edwina Currie. ‘We were arguing about Blair’s legacy and she said: “When all’s said and done, what you did for Labour will pale into insignificance against what you did for mental health.”’ He says Currie’s fellow former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe once described him as ‘a malign force’ and ‘an amazing inspiration to a lot of people’ in the same breath.

Despite perceptions of him now, he’s under no illusions as to how he’ll be remembered. ‘When I die, no matter what I do for the rest of my life, it will say in obituaries: “Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s right-hand man, has died.” I can’t think of anything I might do that will change that.’

He sees his voice as one of many, and says their combined success will be judged by a shift in society’s attitudes. ‘We’re on a campaign, a campaign like women’s rights, like apartheid, like gay rights,’ he says. ‘Mandela said it’s impossible till it’s been done. If you can get to the tipping point, if you can get to the point where people look back and think, “God, did we really used to think that people with mental health problems couldn’t work; did we really used to call them a, b and c…?” That point will come.’

It’s time to wrap up. I thank him for bravely stepping forward. ‘I hate it when people introduce you as being brave. We shouldn’t think of it like that. If I’d broken my leg, it wouldn’t be brave. We’ll get to the point where it’s not brave or un-brave – it’s just what it is.’

Diaries Volume 6: From Blair to Brown by Alastair Campbell (Biteback, £25 paperback/ £20 e-book) is available now