Alastair Campbell’s Jam Jar

I thought Alastair Campbell’s contribution to the current films on mental health (BBC2 Alastair Campbell: Depression and Me) was rather interesting.  In it, and in subsequent comments and his book Living Better (2020), we have learned that Campbell uses a jam jar as a tool to manage and live with bouts of depression. More of that in a moment.

The impression in the revealing programme, is of someone who has battled with depression and has worked hard to understand how it fits into his life. 

  • Where did the depression come from? 
  • Why has he got it?
  • Why does it keep coming back?

One of the questions that runs through the programme concerns whether Alastair Campbell was born with depression. Is his depression an inherited genetic condition or was it acquired; is it related to genetic or environmental or experiential factors? 

  • On balance, the research we see tends towards an idea that it is acquired. 
  • But our early environmental experiences shape our psychologies.

The searching programme did raise questions about Campbell’s early family life. 

One of the points Campbell discusses concerns his older brother Donald who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens. 

Campbell thinks fondly of his brother.  He uses his brother’s name as his safe word in one of the experiments we see.  We see him playing Donald’s composition on the bagpipes.

There is a question of guilt around Donald’s schizophrenia.  Mainly this emerges in questions of whether Alistair could have done more. These are naturally very sensitive questions.

When Alastair Campbell tells us about his brother, you can’t help being interested and wanting to know more. 

In my experience, most, if not all of the problems people come to see me with, relate to experiences they have lived through.  Mostly the psychotherapy conversations reveal relationships between the symptoms the person suffers and their early experiences. A great many psychological problems are acquired.

In the programme Campbell was introduced to a range of cutting-edge approaches to depression

He was told of the likely inappropriate over-prescription of antidepressants, but as with most of the ideas he was introduced to, he tended to turn away from them. 

There were two exceptions to this. One concerned the application of psychedelics in a controlled and now banned experiment which seemed to have had a powerful impact on a depression sufferer.

Alastair Campbell’s Jam Jar

The other concerned a metaphorical jam jar.  Imagine a jam jar that gets filled up by all of the experiences we have until it can hold no more and explodes and our psychological health deteriorates. 

The idea of the jam jar appeared to lift Alastair Campbell almost as high as Burnley FC can on a good day at Turf Moor. 

Now picture an alternative possibility; that through careful thought and mind management, we might learn to process certain things that are problematic for us; things that are in the jam jar. So we might stop drinking or taking drugs or being drawn to co-dependent relationships.

This roughly translates to; the next bout of depression might be managed or fended off.  Also, the jam jar can be imagined as bigger which means it is less likely to overflow.

‘…There’s your genes, there’s your life. And you grow your jam jar with the things that help you to deal with depression based on experience of what you like doing with your life…’

Alastair Campbell, The Rest is Politics, 8 December 2022

Grow your own Jam Jar

Anyway, good luck to him, and to Burnley FC.  The jam jar looked like a version of cognitive behavioural therapy, and if that works for him or for you, that’s great. 

Try it for yourself, draw your own jam jar, picture the things that fill it up, and then instead of watching it overflow triggering depression or other issues, try imagining that the jam jar can be bigger. Good habits, personal care, exercise, going to the football, playing music, creative activities, all of these help to grow the jam jar.

But if it doesn’t, if your depression or anxiety or whatever keeps returning, perhaps talking therapy might be a good place to explore the state of your jam jar. 

Contact me

I have twenty years experience of working with people in psychotherapy. Contact me, if you are interested to discuss how psychotherapy could help you address certain issues in your life.

Giving yourself the chance to speak in a confidential setting may help you develop a clearer understanding of how and what you need to change. This may prove to be the beginning of starting to develop greater insight into yourself and your situation.  It may provide you with the energy and motivation you need to carry on with renewed confidence.

Contact me to arrange a free telephone consultation to discuss how my approach might help you.

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