Alastair Campbell: I’ve been close to suicide, and it’s not something to face alone

If this government won’t offer leadership – let alone practical support – on the mental health crisis, it is up to the rest of us to step in and fill that gap, says Alastair Campbell

Monday 13 May 2024 15:06 BST
A charitable foundation was set up after the suicide of Charlie Watkins
A charitable foundation was set up after the suicide of Charlie Watkins (ITV)

Suicide is the ultimate in mental illness, the point at which the feelings we struggle with become so overwhelming as to be unbearable, and death becomes preferable to life. I have been close – but never taken that final step.

Every morning, I place myself on a “one-to-10” mental health scale. As one is manic delirium and 10 suicide, I want to be somewhere in the middle. I have experienced one just once (and I never want to go there again), and I have experienced nine. Three or four is where I manage to be most of the time. But once I slip the wrong side of six, it can feel like an inexorable slide.

We are all on that one-to-10 scale, because we all have mental health – and just like our physical health, it can be some days good, some days not so good.

I met Tim Watkins when I was told he would be speaking before me at a charity fundraiser in the City of London. A big, confident-looking man, Tim fitted in well. Then he recounted the story of the phone call he received one day, telling him his son Charlie had taken his own life. Suddenly, the brightness in his eyes was replaced by the unmistakable look of grief. I suspect I was not the only parent in the room thinking: “If this happened to me, I’m not sure I would ever get over it.”

Tim gave his speech for the charity set up in Charlie’s name for which I was fundraising. A father trying to get good out of bad. Trying to make sense of unspeakable pain and loss.

Mike McCarthy is another father who lost his son to suicide. Ross took his own life in 2021, aged 31, leaving behind a fiancee and a three-year-old son. He had struggled with depression for some time, and Covid lockdowns had not helped. In a note left for his family, he said: “Please fight for mental health. The support just isn’t there.” At the time, he was on a six-month waiting list for talking therapy.

Since his son’s death, Mike, a former journalist with Sky and the BBC, has heeded Ross’s call, devoting himself to the field of suicide prevention. He too launched a charity, Baton of Hope. On Thursday, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, it will be hosting a major conference in Sheffield, entitled “Making Suicide Prevention Everyone’s Business”.

It could not be more timely, coming in the wake of a seeming shift in the government’s approach to mental health.

During their time in office, David Cameron and Theresa May said a lot of the right things about mental health, the latter even appointing the first-ever minister for suicide prevention. Since then, however, though we have continued to make progress with regard to attitudes and awareness, we are going backwards on services. And Rishi Sunak’s recent speech on the “sicknote culture”, and a new policy reducing the role of GPs in assessing people’s fitness for work, struck me as an attempt to wind back the dial on attitudes, too.

Depression and anxiety, he seemed to be saying, were not as real as other illnesses. This is such a retrograde step. Rather than developing policies to address real problems, his preference seems to be to pretend the problems don’t exist. The 6,000 families bereaved by suicide each year have a very different story to tell.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 and women under 35, and for all the openness and the campaigning, there has been no improvement in those figures for more than 15 years. Imagine if asthma was the biggest killer, or diabetes, or indeed any physical illness. Do you not think there might be a greater urgency from the political and medical establishments? Look at how, when the need was great, we managed to do the work required to find a vaccine for Covid. Medications for mental illness are barely changed for half a lifetime.

We talk the talk on “parity” between physical and mental health. We are a million miles away from it. Yet there is a vast body of academic and clinical work showing that suicide is almost always preventable, with the right attitudes and systems of support. The conference on Thursday will highlight the role that employers, and workplaces more generally, can play, with the launch of the Workplace Pledge. Built on six principles for suicide support, it is a practical guide for leaders and organisations about what they can and should be doing to help prevent death by suicide.

If the government is not going to give leadership, or provide practical support, then it is up to the rest of us to step in and fill the gap. Perhaps this is what David Cameron meant when he talked of the Big Society. When it comes to mental health and suicide prevention, we really are all in this together. We need to be.

Alastair Campbell will be a keynote speaker at The Baton of Hope’s suicide prevention conference Making Suicide Prevention Everyone’s Business, in Sheffield this Thursday. For tickets, visit Eventbrite

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