Exclusive: Campbell on the couch

Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's spin-doctor and "the second most powerful man in Britain", as he was once dubbed, knew something was desperately wrong when he found himself driving a hire car endlessly around a roundabout.

Only 28 and the news editor of a national Sunday newspaper, he was drinking "from day to night". The result was a "work-induced, drink-induced, pressure induced, depression-induced psychotic breakdown".

Twenty years on, Mr Campbell, who went on to become a key member of Tony Blair's inner circle, vividly remembers the day he "cracked" and ended up on a hospital ward after being arrested. "Your mind is like plate glass and you are trying to carry it around and hold it together and you feel it cracking. It's getting bigger and bigger and you can't hold it any longer and it explodes."

This Tuesday is World Mental Health Day, and the father of three, who was the Prime Minister's director of communications for more than seven years, is speaking exclusively to The Independent on Sunday about his own experiences with depression in an effort to remove the stigma attached to mental illness.

"There is a tone of bereavement when people talk about mental illness. We have to get to a position where it's talked about it in the same way that you talk about a broken leg.

"I was very depressed for a long time. You wake up, can't open your eyes, you can't find the energy to brush your teeth. The phone rings and you stare at it."

Today, Mr Campbell is teetotal: he acknowledges that alcohol was one of the factors in his breakdown. It was only when a friendly young psychiatrist at the hospital asked him about his drinking that he realised he had a problem.

"I had always drunk a lot since I was a teenager, but like a lot of people with drink problems I was not really aware of it," he says.

"I didn't drink because I was shy or anything, but my father is from the Hebrides and there is quite a big drinking culture. Newspapers... there is a big drinking culture.

"My family and friends tried to warn me, but that made it worse. I always denied I had any sort of problem until two or three days into the hospital treatment and this very nice psychiatrist asked me what I had to drink. I went through it and it suddenly dawned on me I was drinking from day to night. It was affecting my work and life at home."

His recovery was "a slow process" which took "months" and involved medication. But he was lucky to have the support of colleagues, his family and the man who is still his doctor, whom he describes as "fantastic, brilliant".

"It was unbelievably scary. At one point, I thought I was going to die. We didn't have kids then but it was very, very hard on Fiona [his partner]. I was at the Mirror, very comfortable spiritually, and was only 28 and I got flattered into this taking this job as news editor at Sunday Today. I didn't feel at home there at all, and I was not ready for it.

"I was allowed to take as long as I needed to take to get well , which was months."

Then came the Downing Street years. Mr Campbell says he had sorted himself out and had emerged a much stronger person mentally. But with power came huge pressures.

"When I worked for No 10 I had periods when I knew I was depressed but you just have to keep going. It's hard because of the energy levels required and the crash you have after."

The whole period of the Hutton inquiry and the tragic death of Dr David Kelly put him under intense strain, which he describes as the "worst period".

"I did feel if the inquiry had gone against us that it would have been grim, really bad. Part of me was thinking about that a lot. Again it was one of those episodes where things spiralled out of control.

"Let's be brutally frank: if it had gone against us... it wasn't just me who was out of a job, it was Tony. It was a phenomenal pressure. The blood they smelled was mine.

"I felt completely confident in relation to the facts. But during the whole period it was a nightmare. And also you are thinking, 'There's this guy for whom it's been such a nightmare he's killed himself'. The day he died was without doubt the worst day. It was about the sadness that someone felt driven to do this.

"The mentality I was adopting as I walked through was, 'This is not as bad as where I've been.' At points of real pressure I always say to myself this can't be worse than 1986.

"Fiona finds it a bit shocking when I say this, but my breakdown was one of my worst and best experiences - the worst was the feeling of losing myself totally. The best was because it sorted out who I was and what I wanted to do."

What concerns him now is the portrayal of mental illness, especially in the media. "The most worrying thing is the constant association between violence and mental illness. There is a lot in the papers about lifestyle but very little about mental health. Three to four years ago there was the Frank Bruno headline in The Sun. Last week it was "Lunatic at No 10".

"What is your instinctive reaction when you see a wino? You sometimes feel fear because there is a chance they can be violent, you think, there but for the grace of God... But you rarely think, this is someone with a mental illness."

"I know people with serious mental problems who spend years holding down a job before telling employers. If you are upfront [about mental illness] it's going to get held against you. This is one of the reasons I'm happy to talk about how it affected me. I was lucky."

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?