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Employers all at sea when it comes to mental illness

Alastair Campbell, left, pictured with his then boss, former British prime minister Tony Blair.


Alastair Campbell, the spokesman for former British prime minister Tony Blair, describes his 1986 breakdown, which occurred when his then-work as a journalist took him to a council building in the Scottish town of Hamilton: "My mind, which was now racing [was]also being filled by noises that had never been there in such cacophony before. Music – bagpipes, brass bands, rock bands all clashing with each other … I had a shoulder bag with me. I emptied its contents on to the floor. I went through my pockets and did the same." Two police officers asked him if he was all right. "No, I don't think so," Mr. Campbell said.

Mr. Campbell has told the story of his depression and alcohol-induced crash several times, most recently in a new e-book The Happy Depressive.

This week I went to hear him speak. The event, arranged by an organization called Inclusive Employers, took place on "Blue Monday," the third Monday in January and supposedly the depth of post-festivity gloom, but this year glowing with London sunshine.

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Mr. Campbell recounted how, when Mr. Blair tried to recruit him, he gave the then-opposition leader a vivid account of his crack-up. At the end, Mr. Blair said: "I'm not bothered about any of that."

Many other employers take fright. Part of Mr. Campbell's mission is to persuade them that they shouldn't. The first thing we need to do about mental illness is find ways to discuss it, he says. One in four people have had mental health problems. He used to sit at summits of world leaders and wonder which of them had.

There was a time when we feared talking about cancer. People used to call it "the big C." Mr. Campbell reckons we are two to three decades behind in talking about mental health.

"Now we all know what to say when a friend or relative has cancer," he writes in his book. "I want to do the same for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses."

The analogy between physical and mental illness is apt. The early days of AIDS were suffused with fear. It seemed like an inevitable path towards wasting death. Some imagined you could catch it through the most casual contact.

Some HIV-positive applicants still, no doubt, face discrimination at work, but most sensible people now know that you cannot contract the disease from sharing coffee mugs – and that those who have it can live long and productive lives with the right treatment.

People are more enlightened about some aspects of mental health, too. Mr. Campbell described a conversation with an American who said he thought putting "recovering alcoholic" or drug addict on a job application would be a point in your favour. Mr. Campbell thought a British employer was more likely to throw the application in the bin.

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He knows far more than I do about how recovering alcoholics are viewed, but I wonder whether he is entirely correct. My impression is that there is far greater understanding today of what addiction is. The use of "recovering" rather than "recovered" has been a big help. People appreciate that addicts have to resist a return to their poison every day. I sense much wider admiration for those who have succeeded.

It will be far harder to persuade employers to take on those afflicted with the conditions that Mr. Campbell referred to, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

People don't understand them, as seen by the use of "schizophrenic" for someone who has contradictory opinions. Employers are also frightened, unsure how these conditions manifest themselves, what the prospects are for those who have them and how much support they might need.

Too much of the talk about mental illness at work is general, as though it is all one thing. It isn't, nor are the ways of dealing with it.

There is an assumption on some of the mental health websites, and in the discussion I heard this week, that overwork and long hours, particularly during these strained times, are contributing to mental illness. They probably are. But there are also those who, offered time off for mental health problems, respond that work is all that is getting them through the day.

Few employers are actively horrible; many just don't know that much. Mental health advocates can help them by being specific: what each condition is and how to deal with it. Prejudice still exists. As ever, the best remedy is confronting the fear and ignorance underlying it. Laying aside the stigma, as Mr. Campbell did, is surely just the start.

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