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. 

The impression is of someone who has lived for most of his life battling with depression. 

  • 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? 

  • On balance the research we see tends towards an idea that it is acquired. 

Our early environmental experiences shape our psychologies.

The question that is left on my mind concerns the early Campbell 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 sensitive questions.

Because we are told that there was a diagnosis of schizophrenia it is hard not to wonder more about the story around this.  This is obviously a private matter for the family.

What does a diagnosis of schizophrenia mean?

My studies into schizophrenia have tended to come back to the work Laing and Esterson undertook into the families of 11 schizophrenic women in the late 1950s and 1960s. 

In their study, Laing and Esterson set out to challenge the meaning of schizophrenia as a diagnostic term.  They did this through research in which they recorded interviews with the diagnosed schizophrenic women and their families. 

The most surface reading of their endlessly fascinating book Sanity, Madness and the Family, (recently republished by Routledge in 2017 with a new foreword by Hilary Mantel), raises the question that if you look behind the label of schizophrenia, if you listen to the way the families, including the patient, speak to one another, then you see that there are ordinary, ie non pathological, complications in the way the families relate.

Laing and Esterson asked; is schizophrenia more socially intelligible than has come to be supposed?

So for example a diagnostic symptom of one of the women who has been labelled schizophrenic, is that she believed her family when talking about her when they said they were not.  This was then taken as evidence of paranoia.  The paranoia was taken as proof of schizophrenia. But when you see the transcripts of the families being interviewed you see that the woman was right.  Her family was talking about her.

In all of the presented cases, the diagnosis of schizophrenia seems to go with particular family dynamics.  In many ways very ordinary and everyday family dynamics, just more complicated. 

When Alastair Campbell tells us about his brother, you can’t help but want 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.

One of the things that stood out in Campbell’s film was the lack of affect. The family faces we saw were all rather emotionless. This suggested that at some point in the past emotion had been denied and cut off.

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.  An imaginary jam jar that gets filled up by all of the experiences we have until it can hold no more and explodes.  But, there is a possibility that through careful thought and mind management, the jam jar can be imagined as bigger.  So it will not overflow.

This roughly translates to; the next bout of depression might be managed or fended off. 

The jam jar lifted Alastair Campbell almost as high as Burnley FC.  But the question with Campbell is just how big will the jam jar have to become? The more details emerge of the Blair Brown years, the more questions are raised about him. His handling of the ‘sexed up’ dossier for example. Hindsight and history have proved there was no weapon of mass destruction with its sighhts set on Cyprus, 45 minutes away. Yet Campbell persisted in touting the idea as though they were facts.

In that regard he is like Boris Johnson, once they have said something, they both become fixed on the idea that it is true.

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. 

But if it doesn’t, if your depression or anxiety or whatever keeps returning.  My suggestion is that you try psychotherapy. 

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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