The former journalist and political advisor spotlights his experience of depression and how to live with it
TW: This book and the accompanying article discusses suicide and depression
As a society, we are far more open and honest about mental health than we used to be. It’s now actively encouraged to publicly reflect on our own experience and ask about our friends, family, and colleagues’ mental health. But we still need to go further.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in England and Wales, based on ONS (Office for National Statistics) data from 2019, which symbolises the toxicities of a male culture that discourages speaking honestly about your feelings and reaching out for help when you need it.
Alastair Campbell is known for his role as Tony Blair’s (former UK Prime Minister 1997 — 2007) chief spokesman and strategist. Nowadays, he’s an activist for mental health, a writer, and a political commentator. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, Living Better feels like a breath of fresh air.
This book encouraged me to understand depression in men in a more nuanced way. Not only did it inform me of Alastair’s experience, but of men in particular, who are often the demographic most likely to not reach out for help. We all have a responsibility to understand mental health and make room for important conversations, and this book helps to do just that and break down the sometimes stigmatised barriers of those who have had careers in high places.
Here are some of the key takeaways I learned from this book.
It Pays to Acknowledge Feelings Rather Than Ignore Them
Toxic positivity can be a hindrance to coping with the realities of depression and understanding it. Although we all want to be positive and happy as much as we can, it doesn’t help brush aside the genuine feelings that depression can bring. It helps sufferers be aware of their own depression to communicate to their loved ones how they feel.
Alastair Campbell has devised a unique way of doing this — it is called the ‘depression scale.’ Each morning, as he wakes up, he gives himself a rating for the day to try and compartmentalise the scale of his depression. If he gives himself a one, this means he is in a state of ‘unadulterated happiness’, and ten is ‘actively suicidal.’ Only occasionally has Alistar hit 9 or maybe 10, and he’s most comfortable in the middle, but he names five as the beginning of the ‘danger zone’ as it could tip the scales.
Knowing where he stands and actively rating his mood encourages Alastair to become more self-aware and accept his mood every day. Although I obviously haven’t spoken to him personally about this, I can infer this probably helps him day-to-day to know where his boundaries are.
The use of a depression scale is a reminder for us all of the importance of acknowledging our feelings rather than burying them in the sand or trying to stay positive all the time. There’s value in accepting the negative feelings and learning to ride the wave that can bring.
Depression Can Make Itself Known in a Variety of Ways
Although the media likes to portray those with depression in a singular way — crying, being openly sad, and being a pessimist, to name a few characteristics — it can present itself in other traits. Alastair’s career took a pretty drastic turn when he flipped from being a journalist to being Tony Blair’s number one spokesperson in government. This meant greater responsibility, longer working hours, and more pressure.
In Living Better, Alastair notes how his workaholic traits and putting himself into overdrive are often one of the signs that he is tipping towards a depressive period or approaching the latter half of his scale. Although he struggled to notice it himself at the time, he has come to see this as a potential tipping point on later reflection. As a reader, this causes us to reflect on the idea that depressive traits can present themselves differently. This may be withdrawing from society and friends, but it can also manifest itself in being hyper-productive, not knowing our own boundaries, and verging on being a workaholic.
It pays to be aware that those with depression can often hide their inner emotions in various ways. This will help us look out for our loved ones’ multiple different behaviours and view depression or other mental illnesses in a more nuanced, less singular way.
Our Mental Health Can Impact Our Loved Ones Too
It may seem like an obvious point to make, but including a chapter on Fiona and her experience of living with Alastair and his depression over the years made me realise how much of a wider impact it can have. Partners, spouses, husbands, and wives of those with mental illnesses don’t get enough air time but including Fiona’s own testimony sheds light on this struggle.
Fiona opens up about how Alastair’s mental health has impacted and tested their relationship and wider family in the chapter How to Live with Depression (When It’s Not Your Own). Famously, she has always said living with Alastair is “bloody difficult…but never boring”.
For a long time, in their early days, in particular, Fiona blamed herself when Alastair’s bad moods would strike and felt hopeless when she couldn’t help him feel better. I think this would be the experience of many people who have partners with mental health conditions, and I thought it was so valuable for this to be included in the book due to the wider impact it can have.
Some Helpful Coping Strategies
At the centre of this book is an honest message. For some, having a mental illness is about learning to live with that and acknowledging there will be good days and bad, and no quick, immediate solution to turning the depressive thoughts off.
In this way, Alastair reflects on some coping strategies he has used repeatedly and explains them to readers. Obviously, everyone is different, and these aren’t guaranteed to be beneficial for everyone, but I thought I’d briefly outline some of them here in case they do.
- The depression scale — see above.
- Journaling — writing a gratitude versus resentment list, doing a daily worst/best log, and the need/want exercise.
- Mindfulness —sitting doing nothing and acknowledging your thoughts as they happen, a formal meditation practice, exercise.
- Drawing your jam jar — genes and things you can’t change go at the bottom, life goes next (the good and bad bits), and then you create some more space for life and what you want to prioritise.
It’s in all of our interests to have a greater understanding of mental illness. By being so open, honest, and reflective about his experience, Alastair helps break down those barriers and the lingering stigma regarding depression, particularly depression in men.
This book is about his life, career, and personal relationships, and it documents an overriding factor which is learning to live with depression but live better. Alastair has experimented with medication, CBT, counseling, and everything in between, and he talks about it all in such a candid and accessible way. He’s had an incredible career in the frontline in politics but never shies away from openly talking about all of his experiences.
Overall, this is an insightful and uplifting read, which will help anyone to learn about the realities of depression and other mental illnesses.
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