As part of a wide-ranging interview that will appear in the next issue of The Badger, Harry Howard talks to Tony Blair’s former Communications Director Alastair Campbell about alcohol and depression
Alastair Campbell – Tony Blair’s former Communications Director and master of the dark arts of spin – knows all about alcohol addiction. He was first told that he had a drinking problem aged 17, and after a mental breakdown in 1986, he stopped drinking entirely for over a decade.
It was also in his early years that Campbell began to grapple with depression. For millions of university students around the country, the intertwining issues of alcohol, alcoholism and depression go hand in hand.
Does Campbell agree? “Yes, and I think also that those who turn to alcohol can become depressed. You have got to remember that alcohol is a depressant; it gives people a short lift but ultimately if you take it to excess, over time it becomes a depressant.
Of course, the problem is that ‘taking to excess’ is all part of the experience of going to university, and alcohol isn’t the only substance that is abused.
“I think ultimately it can be quite difficult,” muses Campbell, “why should we expect that every young person leaves school, goes to university and it all goes very smoothly? Also, I think a lot of young people, they get away from home and they just let rip, they think, ‘I can do what the fuck I want now!’
Campbell did a documentary for the BBC about alcohol and very quickly noticed how alcohol companies target Freshers Week; he pressed Michael Farthing, the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex and a long-time friend, to do something.
“I said to Michael, can’t you do something about this? He said, ‘I’ve got enough difficult stuff to do without telling students they can’t have their Fresher’s week and do all the stuff that they do.’ It’s a very British thing, I don’t believe it happens in France or Germany or America.”
Indeed, the culture around alcohol in Britain is certainly far removed from that of our European counterparts. “We have a relationship with alcohol that I think is a real problem”, says Campbell.
“Yes, some people turn to drink because they are depressed, or they turn to drugs, but because alcohol is a depressant, drowning your sorrows is never a good thing to do.”
So when did he realise that it had become a problem for him? “I don’t know really, looking back it had been a problem for a long time, possibly since my teens. The first time I really fully accepted it was when I was in hospital. Thirteen years I stopped [drinking].”
So he drinks now? “I drink now a bit, I don’t drink much. I fell off the wagon in 1999 as it were and I was testing myself to see whether I could have a drink and it turned out I could, but a lot of people can’t.”
Finally, I intend to ask him if he was constantly on the edge of lapsing back into alcoholism. He cuts me off towards the end of my question with a curt, “No”.
It was depression, not the bottle, that was always there, looming in the background. “I was often on the edge of depression but I never felt I was vulnerable to sort of plunging over the edge into alcoholism again.”
Pick up a copy of the next issue of The Badger to read the full interview with Campbell, where he talks about New Labour, Thatcherism, Michael Farthing and more.