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The Blog - How I Learned to Survive Depression - Alastair Campbell

A jam jar has been the catalyst in helping Alastair Campbell to manage and cope with his mental health more effectively. The 1980s were a particularly bad time for him which culminated on a breakdown. What came left was the willingness to stop drinking and rebuild his career to the point where he became one of the most effective and successful advisors in government working for Tony Blair and subsequently a much in demand public speaker and prolific author.

But the depression has never left him. He has often spoke openly about the many ‘ups and downs’ with his mental health which eventually led to self-harming in 2005. But this was also a time that brought a mini breakthrough for Alistair and he started seeing a psychiatrist more regularly and found the right medication.


Then, some years later, there was another key moment when he came across another coping mechanism which changed his thinking about his own mental health forever. He was taught to think of his life like a jam jar. At the bottom of the jar are your genes-which you can’t do anything about, but the rest of the jar is filled up with your life experiences-good and bad memories and experiences. “I was taught that if you’re not careful your jam becomes unmanageable and explodes and you become ill. You can’t do anything about what has happened, you can reflect on bad experiences but while you can’t change them, you can grow your jam jar,” he told the recent Safer Highways Mental Health Summit.


Growing the jam jar, he was told, would be based around putting in the things that were important to him. So, not being able to sleep one night, Alistair got up and drew a picture of his own jam which includes everything that was important to him such as his partner, his children, family and friends as well as other things that help you stay well or give you a sense of wellbeing when you aren’t feeling great. This included meaningful activity such as work, the fundamentals such as sleep, diet and exercise and other things that are important-which for him were Burnley football club, his dog, playing the bagpipes, reading, writing and being creative.


“Before this moment if someone asked me how I cope with depression I would have said my psychiatrist and taking medication, now its about growing my jam jar and using that as a coping mechanism when I don’t feel well. I tick all these things off on a list and it does make me cope much better. Rather than just deal with depression, I have now learnt to survive it and feel that I am a lot more resilient now and look forward to knowing that my bad mental health episodes will end. Before I would think the episodes would never end and that’s what drags you down and make you feel what’s the point in being here.”


Mr Campbell says that although mental health awareness has evolved in the country, more still needs to be done. “I still feel as though we are talking about it as apposed to doing things to get to a place where government, businesses, families, society and individuals are more open about mental health as they are about physical health,” he says. Under David Cameron’s leadership the government committed to helping people that have psychosis to be seen within two weeks by an expert. This, says Campbell, is nowhere near good enough. “Imagine driving down the road at 100mph on a road without a seat belt on, slamming on the breaks, going through the window and bouncing down the road, calling and ambulance and being told you have to wait two weeks before you can see someone?”


He says some businesses are ‘ahead of the government’ on mental health. “It makes sense for businesses to have their own mental health and wellbeing programmes because they have a vested interest in getting their staff back to work. We’ve got to move away from the approach on thinking we are dealing with mental illness and focus on mental health instead. We have to somehow persuade the policy makers and business leaders to focus on people when they are well and put in place the support needed to make people stay well. We need to create a culture of openness and ask the question that saved my life in three simple words; are you ok?


Mr Campbell’s message to business leader is ‘take mental health seriously’. “We need to create a culture of openness and awareness so people can talk about how they are without it being held against them in some way. If there is one good thing we can learn from Covid, it is a better understanding mental health and the fact that just like physical health, peoples mental health isn’t perfect all the time but by talking about it together we will always get through.”


Alistair Campbell’s book; Living Better-How I learned to survive depression, is out now.

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