Written by Lucy Nichol

Health

It REALLY couldn’t happen to a nicer… political strategist

In this series, Lucy Nichol proves you never know who mental ill health will come after next by celebrating the diverse qualities and eccentricities of lovable friends, acquaintances and (for this week) high profile political peeps like Alastair Campbell.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

The year 2016 is drawing to a close. And you could say it’s been one hell of a rollercoaster ride in terms of politics.

Well, I say rollercoaster: it’s actually been a one-way, never-ending log flume plunging us into the murky waters of toxic hate. Mind you, we all bought the bloody tickets, didn’t we (this year also marks the first time I ever questioned my belief in democracy)?

So, you could say it’s been a remarkable year. Some might say it’s been a batshit crazy kind of year. In fact, there’s a boatload of tweets from people suggesting that two key players in the stranger-than-fiction events of 2016 must have serious mental health conditions:

“Is there any reason why Nigel Farage isn’t locked up in a mental institution?”

“@RealDonaldTrump…you may have some form of mental disease where you see the opposite of reality.”

“@RealDonaldTrump…maybe too late but I insist this man is seen for a mental evaluation.”

Now I have no idea about the mental health status of these two outspoken, loved-up buffoons, but come on Twitterers! Don’t use mental illness as an excuse to justify hatred, arrogance and serious PR failings.

Now let’s be honest, other than the major headlines, I know approximately as much about politics as Trump knows about climate change. Or international relations. Or empathy. Or tolerance. This is a really depressing paragraph, which I am going to leave here and get back to what I was saying.

Politics is a more divisive topic than religion (for which my knowledge is also pretty weak). But one thing I do understand a bit more about is mental illness. After all, I have first-hand experience and I’m still necking the antidepressants on a daily basis.

But mental health is another divisive topic – evidenced only recently when the wonderful #TalkMH Twitter discussion was trolled by ignorant people suggesting anyone with depression should get over it and just ‘take a walk’.

So is there mental illness in politics? Of course there bloody is! We all have mental health – it just doesn’t always work as well as it should. And mental illness isn’t just confined to those who cannot conduct an intelligent debate or restrain their outbursts on Twitter.

Now on to another political figure…

Love him or hate him, Alastair Campbell is a bloody talented man. If your haters are calling you the ‘king of spin’ they’re surely telling you that you’re good at your job, whether or not they like what you’re saying.

Unlike Trump and Farage, Campbell is not known as being ‘crazy’ or ‘unhinged’. He handles the media with great skill. But he actually does have a diagnosed mental illness that resulted in a psychotic breakdown.

“Theresa May said on taking office that mental health was a priority, but then comes the next autumn statement and not a penny piece. Not even a mention. The talk is easy. The policy and delivery are hard.”

This all happened before he began working for Tony Blair. Hands up who, on receiving a job offer, would be direct enough to say, “Well, yes, I’d love to, but you do know I had a major psychotic breakdown don’t you?” (not his exact words, but it’s a rough summary of his conversation with Blair).

Even as a mental health advocate, I recently admitted on my blog that I told my employer I was off sick with a stomach upset. It wasn’t a lie as such, I did have a stomach upset, but it was actually caused by my anxiety. It’s still nerve-wracking to be open sometimes in 2016.

The Campbell/Blair discussion took place back in 1994 when levels of stigma were as high as Trump’s personal grooming budget.

In response to his revelation, Blair simply said: “I don’t care if you don’t.” (His exact words.) Perhaps politics is more forgiving than some sectors? Perhaps there is more understanding?

“I think politicians, in common with most people, have a better understanding of mental health issues than before, and with some exceptions better attitudes,” says Campbell. “But in the end, policy and resources are incredibly important and I think that, in the main, the government talks the talk without delivering what is needed.

“I was encouraged that David Cameron and George Osborne both expressed a commitment to mental health and allocated additional funding in the 2015 autumn statement. And then Theresa May said on taking office that mental health was a priority, but then comes the next autumn statement and not a penny piece. Not even a mention. The talk is easy. The policy and delivery are hard.”

Photos: Cambridge Jones.

Photos: Cambridge Jones.

Campbell’s breakdown happened in the 80s when he worked in the media. He has since been diagnosed with depression, but the breakdown followed a period of intense stress and a regular and significant alcohol intake.

I guess anyone of a certain age working in the industry will recall the absolutely fabulous ‘halcyon’ days’ of 80s and 90s PR and media? So was it an occupational hazard?

“I think I developed a problem relationship with alcohol before I became a journalist,” he says. “Even at school I was drinking way too much. I got my first doctor’s warning when I was about 17. Then at university I would say the drinking was out of control.

“But certainly journalism was a huge drinking culture when I was starting out. People felt you were weird if you didn’t drink, so it was not merely tolerated but encouraged. Politics was quite a drinking culture back then too. Funnily enough, I think people in politics and journalism drink less than they used to whereas many other walks of life have gone the other way.”

But even with the ‘work-hard, play-hard’ culture, where did the psychosis come from? This is perhaps something that should be talked about more. That psychosis is a symptom and not an illness in its own right, and that it can manifest in what are often deemed non-psychotic illnesses such as alcoholism and depression.

“I’m not even sure I understand the link and I have been through it,” says Campbell. “I don’t know what all the different contributors to my psychotic episode were. I was only really conscious of my depression after the breakdown.

“Before, I would say I was more manic than depressed, and I was also working and drinking to excess on a sustained basis. I only had the full-on psychosis once. I was lucky in that I was arrested for my own safety and hospitalised and that was the start of turning myself around.”

“It worries me the extent to which we seem as a society to accept the idea that people living on the streets is just a part of life now. It is not just in London and the big cities. You see it everywhere.”

Darren France, who has spent over 20 years working in mental health and support services for national charity and social enterprise, Home Group, has worked with many individuals who have experienced psychosis.

He says: “The symptom or rather experience of psychosis, as many affected by it will describe, is often a terrifying one, unexpected and sudden.

“For some, the complete unexpectedness of a psychotic episode is linked to the person’s notion that they are not mentally unwell, they do not have a diagnosis of a common mental health problem, just a substance dependency issue or even brief period of substance use to manage stressful times.

“I have seen an increasing number of younger people access our services who have experienced isolated psychotic episodes, which in many cases do not lead to the development of an ongoing psychotic illness. Commonly these young people have been experiencing stress due to pressures and expectations, dealing with past traumas, an increase in anxiety and depression and strong senses of isolation.

“Almost everyone I have known who has experienced this type of isolated psychotic episode has been left with symptoms of anxiety and depression but with the right support at the right time I have seen many go on and manage their recovery well and re-grasp their dreams.”

Spending the night in a police cell is probably unimaginable for most people. Sadly, police custody has been used as a ‘safe place’ for people with mental health problems at crisis point – because services are so stretched.

“We are meant to have parity between physical and mental health; it is there in the NHS Constitution. But we are so far away from it.” Campbell says.

“I also worry that as the campaign to improve understanding and break down stigma makes progress, more and more people come forward openly admitting problems and then discover the services they need are not there.”

“I only had the full-on psychosis once. I was lucky in that I was arrested for my own safety and hospitalised and that was the start of turning myself around.”

So some people with mental illness have experienced police custody without committing a criminal offence. But mental illness also goes hand in hand with homelessness and rough sleeping. Campbell’s son, Calum, set up a foundation called All Human and often goes out to talk to people on the streets.

“I have been with him and what is interesting is the sheer breadth of stories you hear,” says Campbell. “There are a lot of ex-military and we don’t do enough for veterans who fall on hard times. There are a lot who say a broken marriage or other family breakdown was the trigger. But it worries me the extent to which we seem as a society to accept the idea that people living on the streets is just a part of life now. It is not just in London and the big cities. You see it everywhere.”

So you might be thinking, ‘It could never happen to me! I’m a law-abiding citizen!’ The thing is, it’s not necessarily antisocial behaviour that leads people to the streets, but often the streets that lead people to antisocial behaviour. A study by academic Adele Irving explores this, proving that it could, in fact, happen to anyone who is faced with mental, physical, financial or relationship challenges.

So how does Alastair Campbell continue to manage his mental health and maintain a safe lifestyle?

“I have an addictive personality”, he says, “Back then, alcohol was my addiction. Then it became work, then exercise – healthier forms of addiction. I also manage my depressive episodes with antidepressants that I continue to take daily.”

But which came first? The depression, or the alcohol? People often talk about co-morbidities and self-medication through drugs and alcohol. So like psychosis, is alcoholism merely a symptom? Or is it a mental illness in its own right?

Campbell is clear on his position. “It absolutely is a mental illness, and the addiction will depend on circumstances.”

So, we know he’s no stranger to getting a lot of stick. But that’s usually over his politics. Did he get any stick about mental illness? “No, not personally. On the contrary I get a lot of positive support and reaction for having been open. But I think it helps to have a profile, a public voice and also the resilience that my recovery from my breakdown gave me.

Alastair Campbell“But I do come across discrimination against others all the time. Just this morning a man contacted to me to say he had had a breakdown 20 years ago, he always mentioned it in interviews because it led to a blank year on his CV and he says he is convinced it is the reason he has spent most of his life unemployed.”

So, it’s 2016 and stigma around mental illness can be found wherever you look. Perhaps this is why Campbell is so passionate about using his profile to help others.

As an ambassador for Time to Change, a campaign that is incredibly close to my heart, Campbell will continue to speak out and fight stigma and discrimination. He says: “If all of us could somehow make the leap together to be more open, then all of us, the mentally ill and the mentally well, would all be better off.”

To find out more about Time to Change visit www.time-to-change.org.uk. The campaign is always looking for champions to help break the stigma surrounding mental illness so if you’re keen to speak out like Alastair Campbell, sign up via the website.

Get to know more of Lucy’s friends and acquaintances here.
And check out her blog on all things mental health here.

@Lucy_Nichol78

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Written by Lucy Nichol

Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.