Campbell on mental health stigma: ‘change will only come if we talk openly about it’

New campaign stresses the need to destroy the stigma related to mental health issues

Alastair Campbell (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)
Alastair Campbell (Photo: Ray Attard/MediaToday)

Former Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell, an ambassador for the mental health campaign Time to Change UK, has spoken about his own battle with depression to tell a Malta audience that change is possible and that it often comes from the smallest places.

Campbell, speaking at a Richmond Foundation conference on changing attitudes towards mental illness, said that the best way to remove the stigma is a way to make governments respond to the public pressure and campaigns.

“I’m here as a campaigner; I’m here because I’ve had experience in the power of words, and I’ve had experience of severe mental health issues,” he said, adding that resilience was essential.

“I had no choice with the openness of my issues,” he said referring to the way the media had reported about his history of mental issues when he started working for former British prime minister Tony Blair. “The change will only come if we talk openly about it and make it happen.”

“This campaign is about all of us joining efforts so that the whole world will have a better attitude towards one of the most important issues of our time,” Campbell, who is currently writing a book about depression meant for children, said.

MEP Miriam Dalli, the Richmond Foundation’s ambassador for mental health, spoke of the stigma of mental health that often made it an ‘unspoken of’ ordeal for people.

“Speaking about mental health stigma is the first step towards eradicating the negative reaction that surrounds mental health in general,” she said.

“Most people tend to think that what we do not speak about doesn’t exist… it’s the comfortable approach for many because it keeps things we are uncomfortable about out of mind.”

“We require an adequately publicised national crisis helpline to work with our crisis team in order to help the vulnerable who self harm and try to commit suicide,” Dalli said, calling for a national council to combat stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Richmond trustee Jonathan Shaw pointed out various changes and pressures in our everyday lives that had caused new disorders to crop up, even in younger members of society. “It’s a mistake to think that mental health can’t affect young children in our society. The pressures of education are leaving children with very little time to unwind.”

President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca offered a real life situation, which was a testament to what Shaw had just mentioned.

“A young student was going through a depression and he was only able to beat it through the interest and open-mindedness of a classmate,” she said.

“Young people really do go through a lot of stress and it seems that the wide awareness about physical health does not extend to mental health issues.”  

Coleiro Preca said society had a duty to ensure that nobody was left behind and asked why people continued to fear these issues when science and medicine had developed to acknowledge mental health issues as curable or controllable issues.

Health Commissioner Dr John Cachia said that asylum seekers were a new group of mental health sufferers who lacked a support network.

A recent mental health literacy survey revealed that around half of the Maltese population was not aware where it could find assistance for issues like depression and stress.

“We need to translate buzzwords into actual action. Mental health is a whole-of-government, whole-of-society issue,” he said.

He also said an action plan on mental health had to be updated and possibly given a bigger budget. “Proper acute care to children and adolescents with acute psychological problems is essential,” he stressed.