Mental health: awareness and beyond

Richard Birch reflects on a conversation about mental health with Alastair Campbell


This week I had the pleasure of meeting Alastair Campbell–famous for being the architect behind New Labour and the (probable) inspiration behind Malcolm Tucker in the BBC satire The Thick of It; but perhaps slightly less famous for his significant work in mental health since his political semi-retirement. Given that World Mental Health Day was earlier this week, I thought I’d ask him, albeit briefly, about his work in mental health and his thoughts on the issue as a whole.

His overriding note was one of optimism. The very fact that there has been a World Mental Health Day and that I was there asking him about the issue shows that there is a much more open dialogue on the matter; and that therefore, the stigma is halfway removed. He himself opened up a while ago about his issues with depression and his brother’s issues with schizophrenia. It was his brother’s issues, not his own, that he says principally motivated his desire to campaign for better understanding mental health. Citing the importance of employers for a better appreciation of adult mental health issues; he greatly approved of Glasgow University’s treatment of him as an employee – not as a ‘schizophrenic’, but ‘as an employee with schizophrenia’, a disease that needs treatment rather than some fundamental character trait. Working there for 27 years, he managed to fit in and feel unjudged for his illness.

His judgement was that we were slowly approaching a ‘tipping point’, where net awareness would exceed net ignorance of the issues regarding mental illness. The ensuing consequences of this will be fairly obvious, an end to stigma and an end to so much of what facilitates these very illnesses in the first place: judgement. The key, he argues, is in our generation; of those who are now about 20, to push forward these more aware views of mental illness and to ensure that they become mainstream opinion.

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Alastair’s own personal braveness in being a figure of public importance and discussing his mental illness makes him, to my mind; another member of a list of inspirational men and women who have furthered the discussion (Stephen Fry, Richard Ashcroft and so on). It often feels hard enough talking to your close friends let alone the general public, and so I would argue that this braveness is a wonderful example to set in doing what Alastair says is necessary–making this not a fringe dialogue, but a mainstream dialogue of destigmatisation and greater awareness.

However, with awareness comes greater problems yet to come–working with various campaigns arguing for a parity of importance given to mental and physical illness; Alastair has come to realise that all the awareness in the world won’t solve the issue solely unless resources are also made available on the NHS to deal with the illnesses. The first step is awareness–then after that, we as a generation must push for the proper infrastructure being there to then deal with it.

Any survey done of Oxford University students shows that treatment is wanting, queues are too long and not enough is being done to make sufferers feel like they can find the doctors they need. This is by no means Oxford specific, recent BBC Panorama documentary ‘I’m Broken Inside: Sara’s Story’ showed the prevalence of the problem, here highlighting the broken system for treating mental illness in the North of England. It is a nationwide problem that must be solved. Too many tragedies are happening at the moment; too many people are falling through the cracks of the system.

First, the awareness will come, then the facilities must come after.