Birte Twisselmann: It’s good to talk

Cracking up, to be broadcast this coming Sunday on BBC2, will be the second television programme to be broadcast in the context of the BBC’s Headroom campaign for mental health and wellbeing ( I had a preview at a screening organised by the Royal Society of Medicine. The documentary provided a moving insight into journalist and former government spin doctor Alastair Campbell’s depressive breakdown in 1986, and subsequent recovery. The screening was followed by Q&A with Campbell and psychiatry professor Kam Bhui, at London’s Royal Society of Medicine on Tuesday 7 October.
The film was fascinating: a mixture of interviews, interspersed with rather dramatic filmic representations of events and Campbell’s inner states and the voices and music in his head. Labour politician Patricia Hewitt, Campbell’s doctors, his partner Fiona Millar, several former colleagues, and various others contributed their version of events.
It was fascinating to see and hear a whole array of possible explanations and contributing factors – biochemical imbalances; obsessiveness; perfectionism; a low boredom threshold; chronic severe stress; alcohol (triggering or masking depression?); genetic factors; acquired behaviours – as well as suggested therapies may be a reminder how little is really known about this common, but somehow still mysterious, condition.
Alastair Campbell certainly has never struck me as the depressive “type” (I should know better but seem to be rather fond of my own prejudices) – he seemed a highly articulate, acerbic, sharp, single minded, forceful, successful man at the top of his game; nothing warm, fuzzy, and unexpressed about him. And yet, hearing how he thought everyone else had a problem and not he; how he went from being sceptical about discussing his problems with “outsiders” to sharing them (even on television) and learning to take on board what others had to say; how he realised that his breakdown was not the end of it all but rather, the beginning; how he lives with his depression as a chronic condition and what steps he takes to deal with it. All these things provided a different perspective from the public persona that I remembered from the early New Labour years. By his own admission, his nervous breakdown was “the best thing that ever happened to me” (to which Fiona Millar wryly said: “It just wasn’t very pleasant to go through it”). In the film as well as the Q&A he emerged as rather likeable, insightful, and in possession of a great sense of humour (“I’m trying my best to become fathomable”).
Given Campbell’s former occupation, it might be easy to suspect that his main purpose was perhaps to plug his forthcoming novel, but his statement “Mental illness is not a weakness – it’s a fact of life” suggested a rather wider agenda. If this television programme contributed to demystifying – and de-stigmatising – depression, that would seem to be a very good thing indeed.

Cracking up will be broadcast on Sunday 12 October at 9 pm on BBC2.

Birte Twisselmann is assistant editor