Alastair Campbell: The nation’s mental wellbeing should be a priority

"Governments cannot make people happy, but they can and should think about creating the conditions to do so"

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This is the second time I’ve been “hired” by Alan Sugar, in a relationship going back to the mid-90s when I was involved in discussions with him about coming out for Labour.

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These are recorded in my diaries, including the observation from Nick Hewer that Alan “was not too comfortable with being well known”, my own remark that he was “not too articulate” and Alan’s statement to me that he was “not too great on telly”.

How times change. Today he looks like a man born to be on TV, and such is his place in the telly firmament that here he is guest-editing Radio Times, and asking me to write for it.

Working for Lord Sugar

His first hiring took me so far out of my comfort zone that while staying at a hotel with team-mates in a Comic Relief version of The Apprentice – that’s me on the left in the RT cover from March 2007 – I called my partner Fiona in the middle of the night and said, “What am I doing? This is reputational death.” I survived – just.

Interestingly, given that was one of the most stressful working weeks of my life, this time Alan has hired me because he wants me to write about happiness, mental health and the workplace.

I’m hoping that means he shares my view that employers need to do more to break down barriers for the mentally ill, and that he supports attempts to put happiness at the heart of the policy-making agenda in government.

My own experiences

Alan is intrigued that I’m so open about my own mental health issues. Partly it’s because I’ve been lucky with my employers. When I had a breakdown in 1986, I thought my career as a journalist was over. But my boss at the Mirror, Richard Stott, took me back, and I slowly rebuilt my life.

When Tony Blair asked me to work for him in 1994, and I told him about the breakdown, he said, “I’m not bothered if you’re not bothered.” I said, “What if I’m bothered?” He said, “I’m still not bothered.”

I wish more employers could take that attitude. I can afford to be open. But I understand why a graduate applying for a job thinks twice before admitting to mental health problems. Of course that just reinforces the stigma and taboo.

Leading happy lives

The Office of National Statistics is conducting a survey on happiness, and the first chunk of its findings was published last week. We came out as 7.5 out of 10 happy. There’s a lot of data in there that can be used to inform not just policy-making but choices that people can make about their lives.

I’m not a big fan of the Cameron government. But I do support the idea of adding happiness to the list of factors policy-makers have to take into account when devising policy.

Governments cannot make people happy, but they can and should think about creating the conditions to do so. If they did, they might come up with a very different approach to the economy, schools, the NHS welfare, other areas of policy.

Happiness in the workplace

This is as much about employers as it is about government. It’s in their interests to think more about the mental wellbeing of staff. A happy workplace is a more productive workplace.

I want us to get to a position where people feel they can be as open about their mental health as their physical health. Ultimately, that is what will break down the taboo.

One in four of us will have direct experience of mental illness. I know from painful experience that The Apprentice isn’t scripted. But if any of the contestants do have mental health problems, I’d urge them to be open.

Forget the gruff exterior: Alan’s a pussycat at heart. The fact that he’s got me writing about mental health and happiness means he’s longing to show his more sensitive side.

Never mind “You’re hired” or “You’re fired”; the words I really want to hear him say are “I understand”.

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 13 March 2012.