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."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
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: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

    £22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

    Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

    £40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

    Day In a Page

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor