Today, my heart aches for Alastair Campbell, broadcaster, writer and spin doctor. Nothing to do with politics, for most of his I share anyway, but for the loss of his brother Donald at the young age of 62. We now learn that Donald’s life was ravaged by schizophrenia, that most cruel of mental illnesses. It was not the illness that directly killed him – he died from a respiratory collapse – but it shaped his life. I never knew him, had never previously heard of him and I can hardly imagine the hell his surviving brother is going through. I feel the need to write about it, though.
Alastair Campbell is the greatest mental health campaigner of my lifetime. I know it’s a subjective view and open to question, but that is how he comes across to me. A fantastically successful person, personally and professionally, he has also opened up about his own demons, his nervous breakdown and his lifelong depression. It’s game-changing stuff.
The stigma about mental illness is immense. Despite better understanding among many and the examples of the young royals, as well as Campbell, in opening up on the subject, people are still, understandably, unwilling to come out as mentally ill. It still does affect everything from employment opportunities and career development and, thanks to some sections of the media there are still many who treat mental health in very different way to physical ill health.
Alastair reveals that much of his campaigning work was not so much about his own condition, but that of his brother’s. That working for enlightenment and better treatment was not about him. It was about someone else. As Shania Twain might have said, that does impress me much.
Despite high profile campaigns, and, frankly, weasel words by politicians, nothing has changed with mental health treatment. I should know. There are times when I have had to wait months, many months, for the most basic treatment. I was one of the lucky ones because I survived in order to be depressed another day. Not everyone made it.
I do not compare depression with, say, cancer, but what if a particular type of cancer was treated for a brief period and then the patient was just left to get on with life, with no regular check-ups? Just medication to be used forever with little measuring of whether it actually worked. Society would surely never tolerate that, but with mental illness we effectively condone such an attitude. Perhaps this is because not enough people understand mental health or that they simple don’t care? I’m all right, Jack or Jill?
How do we get it through to people that suffering from depression is not like being fed up? We cannot just snap out of it. It’s dark and it’s deep and its woven into our souls and our psyche and no matter how wonderful our lives seem to be from the outside, the pain inside can be overwhelming.
For some of us, the drugs do work; the sticking plaster drugs that just about hold things together for most of the time. For others, the drugs and the therapy don’t work so well or don’t work at all. Every little problem becomes a big problem and too many problems just blend into nothingness and create a life seen through a grey mist, where your feet grow heavy and you can’t wait to get to sleep to get away from it all.
Donald Campbell worked all his life, an incredible feat. No burden was he on the state. It all ended too soon, as it usually does for people with such overwhelming illnesses.
For many people, the black dog of depression is there all the time. Some times are better than others and for much of the time life goes on as normal as normal can be. And mental health can not only ruin lives, it can end them too, directly or indirectly.
All this darkness is wearing me out. I would love it if the powers that be took matters as seriously as Alastair Campbell.