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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions - In conversation with Alastair Campbell

Posted on 06 October 2020

In September, Alastair Campbell, writer, communicator and strategist, spoke with Managing Associate Harry Eccles-Williams about his latest book: "Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression", which is both a deeply personal memoir about depression and a call for change.

Alastair has been arguing for a new approach to mental health for years, but in light of COVID-19, both our personal and professional lives have significantly changed and businesses will have a key role to play in shaping the post-COVID world. The need for awareness and understanding of the mental wellbeing of leaders and employees alike will be greater than ever.

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

Conversations on the legal topics affecting businesses and individuals today

Harry Eccles-Williams

Welcome to the Mishcon Academy Digital Session with Alastair Campbell.  Thank you very much for coming in to discuss his view but Alastair requires little introduction but I will give a brief background.   He was born in Keaghley, Yorkshire to Scottish parents?

Alastair Campbell

Keithley.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Keithley, sorry.

Alastair Campbell

Th, th and all those…

Harry Eccles-Williams

Okay sorry.  He used to study languages at Cambridge which he didn’t enjoy before joining the Mirror’s Graduate Scheme where he rose to accomplish editor.  In ’93 he moved to Today and then shortly after that he joined the Labour Party as its Press Secretary.   He masterminded the new label election success since the Downing Street Trust Secretary between ’97 and 2000 and then the Director of Downing Street Communications between 2000 and 2003.  During this time he was seen by many as the de facto Deputy PM.  Since leaving Government he has forged a successful career as an author, publisher, consultant and campaigner.  He spends a lot of time campaigning for greater awareness on mental health issues and his new book ‘Living Better – How I Learnt To Survive Depression’ has just been published.  First question, why did you write the book?

Alastair Campbell

Well I think where it came from, the thinking in it is that I did a TV documentary about depression and anybody who has ever done a TV documentary knows that you do literally hundreds of hours of work and most of it never sees the light of day.  So partly I was thinking of all this stuff, what are we going to do with it?  I think there is three things I want to come out of it in the main.  The first is I, I hope that somebody who has depression whether now or at any time in their lives can look at this book and find specific things that will help them.  I tweeted this morning and put on Instagram a picture of an Amazon review that came up last night which honestly kind of had me holding back tears this morning, it was somebody who said that they were about to kill themselves and somebody had suggested they look at the book and they said it pulled them back.  The second thing, I hope that somebody who doesn’t get depression and hopefully never will, gets a better understanding of what depression is and then the third thing is the point about broadly campaign and I think it is a fourth reason why I wrote it is because in a way I want to honour the lives and struggles of members of my family that you and everyone else out there has never heard of.

Harry Eccles-Williams

And I guess that is the question, where do you think it does all come from?

Alastair Campbell

I mean I honestly don’t know.  I think there is on my dad’s side of the family, there is yeah quite a lot of drinking and you know, probably quite a lot of depression and maybe undiagnosed.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Yes.

Alastair Campbell

But I don’t think it is hereditary.  I think with, I think our minds are wired in different ways and I think that, I think mine… I don’t know where mine comes from and you know, part of the reason for the documentary was trying to really try to find out and with my own Psychiatrist for example, I’ve been seeing him for 15 years, he’s a very important person in my life, I trust him completely.  He still thinks there is some hidden gem in there somewhere that we haven’t found.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Something, what that happened in your early life?

Alastair Campbell

Yeah, yeah which I don’t, I just think you’ve…

Harry Eccles-Williams

You’ve seen it all.

Alastair Campbell

I think so yeah.

Harry Eccles-Williams

15 years down the line?

Alastair Campbell

You know, my parents were good to me.  I had a good childhood so I don’t know is the honest answer. 

Harry Eccles-Williams

I think it would be interesting to hear what, what happened when you first hard your, when you had your first mental breakdown.  Where it led to?

Alastair Campbell

Yeah.  Okay.  It’s complicated because it was, it was a psychotic breakdown and the thing about psychosis is that you don’t know what is real and what’s not.  So there are bits in there that I’m 100% convinced were real but given the time, I was hearing voices, hearing music, seeing things that other people were telling me weren’t there, then I can’t be 100% sure.  But to give you the kind of the background, I over worked, over drank and I ended up, up in Scotland, I was on a trip with Neil Kinnock who was MP Labour Party and I literally cracked up.  And build-up, it sounds sudden, but the build-up had been going on for weeks and eventually I cracked and then what happened was I got, I got arrested.  I was behaving very oddly in a public place and then taken to the Police Station, went absolutely crazy in the cell.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Physically or just…

Alastair Campbell

Phyiscally, both yeah, I mean physically I was like you know, banging the wall and took all my clothes off.  I was just absolutely away with the fairies.  Hearing stuff and responding to it not responding to.  They got me a doctor, the doctor came, they found a friend of mine that lived about 20 miles away.  He came and picked me up, took me to hospital and I was hospital for a while.

Harry Eccles-Williams

In the book there seems to be a couple of elements and you said this yourself, where you got lucky.  You got lucky there in the sense that but for this chance maybe you’d just be another person on the street.

Alastair Campbell

I think the short answer is almost certainly and that is why I have written about luck.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Yeah.

Alastair Campbell

I mean these Policemen who are, I saw, one of my unfulfilled hopes in life is that one of them will get in touch and say ‘I think I was that copper’ because they wouldn’t have known who I was.  I was just this guy in this Chancel Building who was emptying his pockets on the floor and emptying a bag and then talking to things that weren’t there and trying to work out why I didn’t have blood on my face because I thought the inside of my head had exploded.

Harry Eccles-Williams

What is it like living with you but also in general, how do you think mental health impacts on those afterwards.  Those whose loved ones have mental health difficulties?

Alastair Campbell

Well what it is like living with me, as I say to everyone and she is utterly blessed, hundreds of millions of women around the world…

Harry Eccles-Williams

Yes.

Alastair Campbell

…who would like to be where you are now but you go the jackpot.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Yeah.

Alastair Campbell

You know, what she says is it’s difficult but never boring.  Know listen, people who are the families of people who are struggling with mental health problems, they get no support at all.  Actually you know, you could argue, I think sometimes this is worse for them.  At least when you are kind of you know, away with it you are so wrapped up in your own world and you know, you are sort of locked into it whereas for them its like, I think the one thing that has absolutely helped us both, two things really, one is my openness, I never used to be open and then the other thing I think that has been really good is me finally in 2005, understanding, you know I needed somebody outside the family to help.  So you are talking about you have this depression scale, so my scale is this 1 to 10 and it is just like when I wake up or when I am brushing my teeth or shaving or whatever, I just have this very, very short conversation with myself which is ‘how are you?’.  I don’t give myself an alibi.  If I am close to 1 that’s dangerous, the manic side.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Okay.

Alastair Campbell

So I have to be a bit careful.  Often there is nothing you can do about that and if I am over this side, 6, 7, 8, 9 then I’ve really got to watch out and I never give myself 10 because 10 is suicide.

Harry Eccles-Williams

You talk a bit about suicide in this and talk quite a lot about  suicide and it makes you very angry, sort almost a criticism of the folks who do it or feel like it.

Alastair Campbell

Yes.

Harry Eccles-Williams

It’s not if people are so wrapped up at that point that it is not a, it’s not a selfish act?

Alastair Campbell

I don’t get angry at this because I understand why it happens but I do always correct people.  If somebody says ‘so and so committed suicide’ I say, ‘no they didn’t commit suicide, you commit a crime and you commit a sin.  Suicide is neither a crime nor a sin’.  It is what people do when they are absolutely desperately mentally ill so could you rephrase that and say ‘he took his own life, he didn’t commit suicide’.  That’s what suicide ideation is all about you are thinking, it’s not just about the pain in yourself, you are thinking about the pain you cause other people.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Something like that happened when you left Government?

Alastair Campbell

Yeah and that, absolutely, that I think, I think I used this word in the book, it was literally felt like a decompression and I recalled a conversation about this and some of this with David Blundell was on The World at One at lunch time talking a lot more sense than the current Government do about anything and he, he came round to see us for dinner and the phone went and it was actually Tony Blair even though I had left and I am standing in the doorway talking to Tony on the phone and I am half listening to Grace and David, my daughter and David Blunkett.  Grace would have been, I don’t know, 9, 10, 11 or something and so David said ‘so what’s it like having your dad home?’ and Grace said, ‘it’s alright’.  ‘So what’s he do all day?’, she said ‘well when we go to school he is sitting there on that sofa having a cup of coffee and when I come home at night, he’s lying there fast asleep’.  And that’s true, I was, I was spending the day on that sofa actually.

Harry Eccles-Williams

And then it manifested in…

Alastair Campbell

Yes.  Fiona and I weren’t getting on again and she said ‘why don’t we go for a walk’.  So we went for a walk and were on this walk and up in Hampstead near Kenwood and I literally started punching myself in my face.  I mean I literally… hard punches and that was when I knew.  I could see Fiona was terrified.  I was actually quite terrified by that, I’d never done that before and it was obviously not pre-meditated.  It just exploded yeah, it exploded and I think what it was, I think it was this feeling that I’ve done the hard stuff, I mean I gave up drink, I’ve given up the job because that’s what you want me to do and it’s this is shit and I can’t get rid of this thing.

Harry Eccles-Williams

There is a number of practicals.  You talk about your jam jar.

Alastair Campbell

The jam jar actually came from a, a British woman who lives in Canada and I went to see her for the documentary. She did make a film, you know and it is amazing how this is connecting people and you know, keeping it so simple.  She basically said – she’s called Janine Austin – she is a geneticist and she says that you know, you can live your life, you can live your life as jam jar.  So there’s your jam jar and down the bottom there are your genes.  Just because you’ve got those genes does not mean a big deal right, you might be but it is not automatic.  But there is nothing you can do about genes.  Your parents are your parents, your grandparents are your grandparents, your background is your background.  So the audience doesn't know what I'm talking about now, there’s somebody in the room.  It is not just me.  So there’s the jam jar, there’s the genes and then your life fills up the jam jar.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Yes.

Alastair Campbell

Key stuff good, key stuff bad and it all mixes up and most of the time most of us keep this fairly well managed but if your life becomes unmanageable your jam jar explodes and you are ill, you know, that’s the theory and she said what we do is we spend all our time trying to undo whereas what we should be doing is trying to grow the jam jar so we can put more of life in it. 

Harry Eccles-Williams

On politics, the world is a little crazy right now and so I guess the question is where do you see the Labour Party is sat right now and also more broadly sort of politics as a whole?

Alastair Campbell

I think politics around the world is in a really dangerous place.  Populism in which Trump is the you know, global poster figure and I saw a far right rally in Germany last week is you know, his face was on a lot of the flags.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Oh really?

Alastair Campbell

Oh yeah.  But I think that you know, him, Johnson here, Orban, Putin, China, what’s happening in, in Poland, there is a lot going on there that is really quite worrying and I think what is happening here is really, really worrying.  I really do.  I think that this, you know here we are, we are in a law firm, I think what happened the other day in relation to this common market bill, turning into a bill it’s okay to break the law and sort of if its okay, well we like that we don’t like that.

Harry Eccles-Williams

I don’t recall anyone saying that.

Alastair Campbell

I just find it incredible that it’s happening and actually you know, people aren’t nearly as up in arms as they should be.

Harry Eccles-Williams

No.

Alastair Campbell

Well that’s how it works.  Stuff gets normalised.  Trump did start on day one that 20 years ago would have been done for a President and he’s now according to the Washington Post, told 20,000+ lies as President.  Johnson’s not done 20,000 but he’s done a few and he’s done them in the House of Commons where it used to be a resigning offence.  So that’s the normalisation of abnormal behaviour and the media, as in our media, is a really big part of the problem that we’ve got with our policies.  I mean, those newspapers which back Brexit cannot bring themselves to say ‘Brexit was a disaster’.  Those newspapers who backed Boris Johnson cannot bring themselves to say, ‘This guy is morally and "compotentially" – if that word exists – unsuitable to be Prime Minister’, they can’t bring themselves to say it.  They know it is true but they can’t bring themselves to say it.  I think there is corruption in the whole of this Government as well.  I think some of these contracts on Covid they are corrupt.  Where are Labour now?  I think Kinnear is doing a far better job than Jeremy Corbin but I think that Kinnear doing well is important but insufficient.  You need the team to do really well, you need the negatives to be absolutely eradicated, the biggest of which was antisemitism, that’s got to be dealt with properly but most importantly they need a foreign policy agenda and you know they are not there yet because everybody is dealing with Covid and Brexit.

Harry Eccles-Williams

And not so much this work place but work places in general, do you think it is still better for your career to, to keep quiet?

Alastair Campbell

I think it can be and I think that’s a really bad thing so yeah.  It is always a real problem but that’s why I think you do need, and the ‘time to change’, I don’t know if Mishcon is a ‘time to change’ employer, if it’s not, it should be.  Time to Change is a mental health campaign where you sign up and there are certain principles of employment that you then sign up to and if you want some scandal….

Harry Eccles-Williams

Well I don’t know but if we aren’t, we will be.

Female Voice

We are.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Steph says we are.

Female Voice

I can confirm we are.

Alastair Campbell

Okay.

Harry Eccles-Williams

Well then we are.  There you go paragons of virtue.  Okay well sadly that is all we have got time for.  So thank you very much for coming in and talking about your book.

Alastair Campbell

And by the way they are not making a donation to me, they are making a donation to…

Harry Eccles-Williams

Absolutely so.  Your email will go around about the book if you would like to purchase it this will then be a donation that is given to my,,, not to Alastair and yes on the front of it it says from Stephen Fry says, ‘this book can save lives’ and by the sounds of it it already has.

Alastair Campbell

Well I hope so.

Harry Eccles-Williams

I think it certainly will and I would recommend one of us reading it, I think it’s brilliant.  Thank you.

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions

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