"Stop calling me brave": Alastair Campbell on redefining mental health

Campbell talks exclusively about his mission to de-stigmatise mental health, and how it can boost resilience

Alastair Campbell is having ‘a seven day’ when HR magazine meets him.

“I mark my days out of 10 when I wake up,” the former Downing Street press secretary, journalist and author explains, speaking exclusively to HR magazine at the Robertson Cooper Good Day at Work Conversation (GDAW) conference. “If it’s a two I think ‘OK’; I see this guy when I get very depressed. When I’m seven I think ‘great’. I never get above seven and I never go below two, and that’s OK.”

He adds: “Talking publicly helps me; I feel better coming to events like this and saying something that seems to resonate with people.” And this is clearly the case as he takes to the stage after our interview, winning the audience over with admirably frank insight into being admitted to hospital in 1986 after suffering alcoholism and then a psychotic episode, and with Brexit-related digs.

Campbell is clearly in his element on stage, talking passionately about a subject close to his heart. So why is he never a 10? The reason, he explains to HR beforehand, is that emotions are trickier things than many grasp – or are perhaps willing to accept.

In fact, he is on something of a mission to redefine happiness and feeling good, particularly in relation to work and how employers treat those experiencing mental ill health.

“I think we shouldn’t confuse being content all the time with a good day at work,” he says. “The best days at work I’ve had have been a real struggle. The Good Friday Agreement was the highlight of my career and it was mind-blowingly difficult. But at the end of it we were so proud. We shouldn’t be too touchy-feely about this idea of a good day at work. Most of the best things I’ve done in my life have been really tough.”

He adds: “I’ll be honest, I’ve never worked fewer than 80 hours a week, and I don’t think I could do 40 hours a week.”

Campbell is passionate about employers realising the vital role challenging, difficult work can play in maintaining, rather than detracting from, mental wellbeing, even – and perhaps particularly – where an employee has experienced a mental disorder.

He gives his brother, who died last year and had long-term schizophrenia, as a personal example. “Most people who don’t understand this world assume someone with schizophrenia could never work,” he explains. “They assume it’s a death sentence; that your life is over once you get an illness as serious as that. But he had the same job for 27 years because he had a great employer in Glasgow University.

“They knew that occasionally he would not be able to cope and [might] go off the rails for a few months. They knew that was going to happen from time to time, but they didn’t see that as him in his entirety. We need to think like that. With mental health we’re still way behind – some employers are good but a lot have a long way to go.”

Campbell cites his own employers over the years as positive examples that others could learn from. He points to Tony Blair’s approach to enlisting him as Downing Street press secretary in 1997. “I had Tony in one room and my wife and Neil Kinnock in the other,” he recounts on stage, explaining that his wife and Kinnock were very opposed to him taking on such a demanding job given his mental health history.

“[Blair] knew I’d had a breakdown and a drinking problem but didn’t know how bad it had been. I said: ‘I’m going to tell you all the problems in my past that might be a problem’. At the end he said: ‘I’m not bothered if you’re not bothered.’ I said: ‘What if I’m bothered?’ He said: ‘I’m still not bothered.’”

Although Blair could be a very demanding boss (“Every Saturday or Sunday morning he’d phone and say: ‘You’ve got to have a rest’. And then say: ‘You’ve got to phone Gordon Brown, write this speech…’”), his initial attitude “said to me that he got it,” says Campbell. “It” being the balance between understanding that Campbell might need support from time to time, but that he was also still more than capable of challenging work.

But Campbell tells HR that he has encountered an even more understanding boss than Blair when it came to his mental health issues. “When I’d had my breakdown one of the first people to phone me was my former boss from The Daily Mirror; he offered me my old job back because he knew I was unhappy where I was [at the Today newspaper] and that was probably one of the reasons I’d gone off the rails,” Campbell recalls.

What all of these employers recognised was that Campbell was potentially all the stronger for his experiences – and this is something he’s keen for employers more widely to cotton on to.

“I think one of the reasons Richard Stott [Daily Mirror editor] took me back was because deep down he knew if I could get through that breakdown I’d be a stronger person, and I am,” says Campbell. “He knew if I could get through that breakdown I’d be tougher, more resilient, more empathetic and I think that’s all true. So we’ve got to persuade employers that maybe it’s in their self-interest to look at people with mental health problems in a totally different way.”

He adds that some of the most creative work he has ever done has been after coming out of a depressive episode, saying he wrote one of his book in only nine days after one bout.

In practice this means employers must make sure they don’t discriminate against people who have gaps in an otherwise impeccable CV due to a problem with addiction or mental health, he believes. And once an individual is employed it’s important to have leadership that takes care to avoid adding extra stress. “I think some bosses create a culture that says ‘if I’m working you should be working; if I’m working weekends you should be working weekends’,” Campbell warns.

Speaking on a panel discussion after his talk, Campbell also cites the importance of having mental health ambassadors. “I think if we leave it all to leaders it will be too variable,” he says. “The next step is every branch of every business having someone who is a mental health ambassador.” They don’t have to be titled as such, he adds.

Campbell concedes, however, talking to HR, that smaller companies might struggle to take on someone who’ll need months of time off. But larger organisations can definitely do more, he believes: “If you’re a large company you want that variety [of individuals].” He concedes too though that in an increasingly gig-based working world there will inevitably be more individuals in danger of falling through the gaps.

This where the government needs to come in. Campbell is concerned in general about lack of government support. “I think we’re making massive progress with regard to breaking down stigma and taboo and encouraging people to be more open,” he says. “My worry is that in the policy-making world they’re seeing that as a substitute for services.”

He continues: “Theresa May made a speech saying mental health is a priority, but if it’s a priority you’d think when your first budget came up there’d be something about it, but not a word.” He adds that it’s up to everyone, employers included, to lobby the government to honour the NHS constitution of mental health having parity with physical health.

Overall Campbell remains optimistic that society as a whole is moving in the right direction culturally. But he adds that mental health shouldn’t be discussed in terms of ‘bravery’: “I hate it when people talk about how brave I am. I don’t feel brave at all. I don’t understand why we say that; it stigmatises [mental ill health] because it suggests it’s abnormal.”

“I want to move to ‘one in one of us has mental health’ – some days good, some days bad,” he adds, referring to the statistic that one in four adults have been diagnosed with a mental illness at some stage.

For Campbell, against a backdrop of people living longer and medical advancements, the mental health debate is going to become the “defining issue of the next generation at every level –government, scientists, researchers but also employers”. “They’re going to need to develop a better and deeper understanding,” he adds.