We are blogging to you live from The Mental Wealth Festival at City Lit. Our first piece see’s #MentalMovement writer Ryan Stolls delving into the world of alcoholism, depression and the risk behind coming clean to employers about our Mental Health. Joined by former politician Alastair Campbell, they discuss personal demons and lend advice for fellow sufferers.
Ryan: There’s a great taboo surrounding alcoholism, to some it is even viewed on par with drug addiction. To have been so open about that alongside a high-profile political career must have taken a lot of consideration. What effect did it have on you both personally and professionally?
Alastair: Actually I’m not sure I agree about the parallel with drugs. Though drugs may be widely discouraged, frowned upon and illegal, one of the problems with alcohol is its total normalization within pretty much all aspects of our lives. Most of the TV soaps set in pubs. Sport drowning in alcohol and gambling ads and sponsorship’s. Celebration and commiseration always associated with having a drink. Ours is a very hard country not to drink in, because you always have to explain. You never have to explain why you drink, but if you don’t drink people think you are a bit weird. When I stopped drinking in 1986, I had had a nervous breakdown and the doctors said drink had definitely been a factor and I should think about stopping. So I did, and because I was quite well known in the newspaper world, and because it was known around the place that something had gone wrong, I just decided to be open, and tell people I had had a total meltdown and I couldn’t drink any more. I found most people were fine with that. Then when I switched from media to politics, some journalists started writing about my mental health history and again I thought openness would be the best approach. I went thirteen years without a drink at all, and then for some reason I tried one just to see if I could. I wish I hadn’t. I have never been drunk since but the long period without a drink was one of my proudest achievements.
Ryan: You were the first man in politics to openly speak about your mental health. Since then a string of MP’s have begun to talk about it and changes to the way politics and mental health are viewed are beginning to change. What do you think needs to happen to remove the stigma that surrounds MP’s and mental illnesses?
Alastair: Openness. It is true that some MP’s have talked openly about their own mental health issues, but it is still a tiny fraction. Politics is actually an environment in which a lot of the factors lend themselves to negative impact on mental health – workload, stress, all the media hate and public anger about politics and politicians, separation from family for a lot of them. I do understand why people in politics might be reluctant, because they worry about how their opponents, the media, their constituents might feel. But I think if we are going to get to the place we need to be – where people feel they can be as open about their mental health as about their physical health – then we need change and we need leadership.
Ryan: Having battled with alcoholism on and off for years, I habitually turn to the bottle during bouts of depression or times of stress. What advice would you offer someone to break that habit from your personal experience?
Alastair: My psychiatrist calls it the ‘poor me, pour me another drink’ syndrome. All I can do is say that from personal experience, no problem ever became easier because I got drunk. You talk about ‘breaking the habit…’ I think the first step is to be aware it is a habit. Then once you realize certain reactions and impulses are kicking in, you can try to develop counter strategies. There was a time, a few years into my sobriety, when I used to smell whisky, and feel really strong when I didn’t drink it. Another little tactic I had was to count every day without a drink as like a run in cricket, and I used to commentate to myself at the end of every day … ‘there he goes, another run there, takes him up to two five hundred and ninety three ….’ I was well into the thousands by the time I stopped.
Ryan: Alcoholism alone is difficult to deal with. The same applies to depression. To have suffered from both and yet maintain a successful career in the public eye mustn’t have been easy at all. There is still a taboo regarding how employers view mental health and it certainly has deterred me from disclosing it to any of my previous employers. How would you advise someone to initiate and have that conversation?
Alastair: This a tricky one. I have been really lucky with employers. When I had my breakdown, my boss at my previous newspaper, the Mirror, called me up and offered me my old job back. Also, when I worked for Tony Blair, he knew all about my past and it didn’t bother him. And to be honest, I have never applied for a job since I first became a newspaper trainee, but I know that is not the norm. So it is hard for a lot of people. In an ideal world, we should all be open, but I know that is unrealistic. I had a letter recently from a nurse who said ‘it is OK for you, you are well-known, well-off, but I am a nurse and I know if I admit my depression it will harm my chances of promotion.’ And that is within the NHS. So I understand the pressures. But I do think openness in the end is better for the individual and will benefit us all once everyone feels they can be open. I do a lot of work with employers and one of the things I emphasis is that by discriminating against a candidate because they have admitted to a mental health problem past or present, they might well be harming their own interests. Some of the greatest people who have ever lived were mentally ill – Lincoln, Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Charles Darwin… I could go on and on. Some of the most resilient people, the most creative people, the most inventive people, the most empathetic people have mental health problems. So why wouldn’t you want those qualities on the team?
Ryan: There is still a stigma around men and mental health, and whilst this is starting to change it certainly helps when well known faces contribute to the cause. As simple as visiting your GP may sound, it took me a long time to get that far. How did you first come to face your mental health issues, and what should men do to confront their demons?
Alastair: I liked the phrase you used in the piece you wrote about ‘manning down.’ I suspect the whole thing about men feeling they need to be the strong, silent types, ‘big boys don’t cry’ and all that, is deeply ingrained in centuries of traditions and culture. But habits change. Cultures adapt. Men are still less likely to open up. And male suicide is now the biggest killer of young men in the UK. I think those two things are related. Now just because you are open does not mean all your problems go away. But if you are open you are more likely to explore and find out what might help you deal with them. It took a breakdown for me to realize I needed help. But even then, afterwards I went for years thinking I could deal with it all myself. When the depressions kept coming, I realized eventually that I couldn’t. I started to see someone and for years I had also resisted medication. I still have bad times, I still have issues, but the combination of openness, exercise, psychiatry and medication has definitely helped me. I like it when people say my being open helps them, but I will be honest, being open has also helped me. I like talking about this stuff. I like campaigning on it. I feel blessed that I have written three novels, in part inspired by bad periods in my own life to do with depression and alcoholism.
One of my golden rules in life is to get good out of bad. The breakdown was the worst thing that ever happened to me in many ways, but I now look back on it and think in some ways it was the best thing that ever happened to me too. I do not recommend a full on psychotic breakdown to anyone, but it did force me to make some big changes in my life, It also made me resilient and it gave me a yardstick for pressure. If I get stressed out and anxious or depressed now, I can sit down in a quiet place, and I say ‘if the breakdown was eight or nine out of ten bad, how bad is this?’ And it rarely gets above four or five.
For information or to find alcohol support services please visit here. If you are concerned that yourself or someone you know may be struggling with their mental health then please visit Mind for more information.
This article is supported by Think Action.