Event highlights: Andrew Roughan in conversation with Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell is a writer and communications professional who’s best known for his role as former British prime minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy. He’s also a man who lives with depression, and a passionate campaigner for mental health to be destigmatised in society.

“Depression is a bastard,” he says in his new book Living Better: How I Learned to Survive Depression. The book explores how Alastair has created methodologies and strategies to live with his depression, and is an unflinching account of the impact it’s had on his career and relationships. It’s also a call to action for people to speak more honestly about how they’re feeling – and to make it easier for others around them to share their stories.

Alastair visited us at Plexal for a socially distanced interview (minus the live audience) with our managing director Andrew Roughan to discuss his book, the impact of lockdown on mental health and the lessons entrepreneurs can take away from his story.

 

Coping mechanisms and using a depression scale

Describing how he managed his depression and how he’s being feeling lately, Alastair told us: “I had a really bad plunge in lockdown. I haven’t beaten it, I survived it.” He went on to outline his depression scale methodology, which helps him be more self-aware, and some of the coping strategies he uses when he starts to feel depression set in such as:

  • Writing down a list of resentments, as well as a list of things he’s grateful for
  • No matter how bad he feels, he always shaves
  • He always pulls his blinds up
  • He reads books not newspapers and listens to music not the news
  • He goes for a run. If he can’t face that, he goes for a walk. If he can’t face that, he walks inside his house. “Just exercise, do something,” he said.

Alastair also empathised with Plexal members and entrepreneurs, who tend to be creative and more open to taking risks. He said that “it’s not all bad” and that he can be at his most creative and productive when he’s just coming out the other side of a period of being depressed. But at other points, he’ll enter a manic phase, like when he recently decided that he should write an opera in German. “There is no better feeling than that energy that you have when you’re a bit kind of crazy and a bit manic,” he said. But Alastair also cautioned that sometimes after the mania eases, you can start to doubt whether your great idea really was so great after all because nobody else seems impressed.

 

The importance of face-to-face interactions, and the impact of lockdown 

Alastair underlined just how big an impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives and behaviour to each other – and said that it’s probably having a more widespread impact that the two world wars did. He also worries about what our more isolated existence and working life is doing to our relationships. “I don’t think you can have the same relationship over a computer screen,” he said. “I worry if that becomes the accepted norm for all working relationships. I think that becomes a problem. I think it’s going to take a long time before we work out which bits of this we want to keep and which bits of this we would actually like to leave behind.”

Elaborating on what exactly we might be missing out on, Alastair said: “It’s that that sort of conversation that you have as you arrive for work about the football last night, about the thing you watched on the telly, about whether your son who was doing a driving test passed. It’s kind of what allows a community of people to embed itself and to be built. And I think if we take that away…I worry.”

 

Talking saves lives

Speaking about how friends, family, colleagues or employers can support somebody struggling with their mental health, Alastair’s advice is “to be as open as possible about how you’re feeling”. In fact, he said that the stiff upper lip approach isn’t just unhelpful but can also be deadly: “That attitude that has developed since man in particular was created of ‘soldier on’, ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘what have you got to be depressed about’, ‘big boys don’t cry’, I reckon that has killed an awful lot of people because I reckon a lot of suicides are caused by people thinking ‘I cannot take this problem to anybody’.”

Alastair also shared examples of how the fear of what society might say or do if you speak opening about your mental health can put people off getting help. Former Liberal Democrats leader Charles Kennedy died aged 55 of a haemorrhage caused by his drinking. Alastair says Charles confided in him, and was close to going to rehab but worried about what the media might say or what his opponents might do with the knowledge that he was an alcoholic.

 

Lessons from being a high-functioning professional and learning how to separate work from life

Alastair reflected on how well he managed his depression while he was in stressful situations serving in Tony Blair’s government, and admitted that he “didn’t deal with it very well” and found it particularly hard to switch off when it came to taking a holiday.

But he’s become better at ringfencing personal time more recently, and shared one method that he’s adopted. Alastair uses two different mugs when he’s working from home: one for when he’s in work mode, and one for when he’s off duty.

 

The experience of writing his book

When it came to writing his latest book, Alastair said the way he described his depression was “an amalgam of various depressions” because he rarely remembers exactly how he felt later on. In fact, he said was almost willing himself to feel depressed while he was writing it so he could get into character.

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