Tim Luckhurst: Mr Campbell is wrong to tell us about his breakdown

'Those like myself who have experienced what he did need to understand the risks of honesty'
Click to follow

For the first time in recent years I find myself in the peculiar position of not doubting Alastair Campbell's motives. By revealing the full misery of his nervous breakdown 15 years ago to the Mind Out for Mental Health campaign, the Prime Minister's director of communications has achieved new standards of candour. Admiration duly recorded, I also wish he had not said what he did. For the vast majority of depression or breakdown sufferers who do not occupy unassailable positions at the pinnacle of national life, he has set a very bad example.

Mr Campbell explains that he has spoken out about "the worst thing that ever happened" to him because he knows "from my own recovery, that it is possible to take strength and hope from the experience of others who've gone to what feels like hell and back and lived to tell the tale". Quite. The difficulty is that for most victims of acute depression the assessment given by one journalistic colleague when Mr Campbell suffered his crisis in March 1986 is closer to reality. That anonymous hack told Mr Campbell's biographer, Peter Oborne, "we all thought that's it. He's nothing in this business anymore, unemployable."

Alastair Campbell is entitled to be proud of his recovery. He stopped drinking, cleaned up his act and rose to occupy a position significantly more senior and infinitely more stressful than the newspaper job he had when he was picked up by police officers who found him "putting all my possessions in a little pile in the foyer of the building I was in".

It is a tale of triumph over adversity. Indeed, in terms of British attitudes to mental health it is an accomplishment of Lazarus-scale proportions. And that's the problem. Many of the millions of British citizens who experience acute psychiatric episodes at some point in their lives will make equally full recoveries. But not by advertising the facts about their experiences.

Why is it that responsible doctors and psychiatrists strenuously advise their patients to lie about depression and breakdown? What explains the extraordinary incidence of back pain recorded in official justifications for absence from work? The stigma associated with mental health is so great that eminent physicians warn those they treat that it would be less harmful to their career to admit to fraud than to confess the truth.

Of course, this prejudice needs to be tackled, but the attitude must change before the confessions are made. Those such as myself who have experienced what Mr Campbell did need to understand the massive risks they would take if they too put up their hands and declared: "I was mad, but now I'm not."

Alastair Campbell was off work for about six months. He spent time in hospital and a period of recuperation at the country home of a colleague. He was not dismissed from his job, and when he had begun to feel better, one colleague handed him a handful of marbles and declared: "Here are your marbles back. Now don't lose them again."

Many sufferers lack that support. A significant proportion discover that, unlike Mr Campbell, who was nurtured by his partner, family and friends are scared, not remotely sympathetic. They fear taint by association and wish that the sick one really was suffering from a slipped disc. Mr Campbell's breakdown appears to have been entirely of the situational variety. He was stressed by a very high-pressure job. He had been promoted rather faster than he felt able to handle. He consumed potentially liver-crippling draughts of alcohol to dull the pain. He fell apart. The nice thing about such episodes is that the treatment is obvious. Remove the pressure, stop the drinking and normality will soon re-establish itself. One might even say that Mr Campbell was not mad. His reaction to unpleasant circumstances was understandable.

No great surprise that he soon felt well enough to return to the fray. But, believe me, I know even when the circumstances are analogous, the breakdown is less severe, and the recovery takes weeks not months, many employers are almost superstitiously hostile to the sufferer.

Good advice to those who have experienced depression or breakdown omits any suggestion of parading the truth in public. Wise doctors and contented veterans of Alastair-like experience know that wisdom dictates: listen to your GP, avoid the drugs unless you are absolutely clear about what they do, get some rest, get fit and tell the world it was amoebic dysentery.

Sadly, on one occasion when his legendary talent for spin could have served a really useful purpose, Mr Campbell has come over all honest and transparent. Sure, depression is surmountable and breakdown can be temporary. But if the Downing Street guru's public soul-searching encourages others to be open about their experiences it will do more harm than good. Elements in the medical profession are already too keen to diagnose breakdown when all that is required is rest. The last thing their patients need is top-level encouragement to suicidal candour.