NI ‘has failed to tackle Troubles mental health problems’

Alastair Campbell in his video message for Wednesdays mental health conference
Alastair Campbell in his video message for Wednesdays mental health conference

Northern Ireland has been let down by a failure to tackle the mental trauma of the Troubles, Tony Blair’s former head of communications Alastair Campbell has said.

The rate of illness is a quarter higher following decades of violence but the level of investment a quarter lower than in other parts of the UK, the former Labour government director said.

A quarter of adults will suffer from a problem at some stage in their lives.

Mr Campbell was part of the British government which helped engineer the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

He said: “It is hard to believe it is almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement was reached. It was one of the best days of my life.

“But for all the progress made elsewhere, I believe the people of Northern Ireland are being let down by the failure adequately to tackle one of the long-term legacies of the Troubles.”

Mr Campbell made his comments in a video message to be played to delegates at a Mental Health summit in Belfast on Wednesday.

The event, which takes place at the Stormont Hotel, is being run by Action Mental Health, one of Northern Ireland’s leading mental health charities.

The conference aims to bring all of the main stakeholders together to outline a way forward for the future of mental health services in Northern Ireland.

Mr Campbell suffers from bouts of depression after having a psychotic breakdown in the mid-1980s.

He said: “I believe mental illness is the last great taboo in our society, and that though we are making progress, we still have a long way to go before we make real the words in the NHS Constitution promising equality between treatment and understanding for physical and mental health.

“I had a full­-on psychotic breakdown in the mid-­1980s and though I got through it, I still get bad depression from time to time.

“I was lucky though. I had a partner and a family who stuck by me, an employer who cared, and brilliant medical support. Not everyone is so lucky. 

“One thing I learned during that time was that it was important to be open and to talk about how you’re feeling. I remain of that opinion.

“Of course I am glad when people tell me it helps them to hear people like me being open, and being able to do high-pressure work despite bad bouts of depression. But being open helps me too.

“I understand all the reasons, the stigma and the taboo, why people choose not to open up.

“But I have never regretted it, and I know that we will only reach the equality we need if we all somehow make the jump together. Employers and families, as well as governments and medics, are so important in this.”

Mr Campbell said Northern Ireland was a place very close to the hearts of all who were part of the Tony Blair team in government.

He said would always defend Mr Blair’s premiership and his contribution to a new Northern Ireland was a massive part of his considerable legacy.

“So I am the last person on earth to minimise the changes that have taken place. But on mental health and mental illness, it is a less happy story.

“One of the legacies from the Troubles is actually a higher level of mental ill health in Northern Ireland compared with other parts of the UK.”

The Action Mental Health charity said Northern Ireland had a 25 per cent higher level of mental illness, but also a 26 per cent lower level of investment in tackling the condition.

Mr Campbell said: “Clearly that is unacceptable and needs to change.”

He added that the “long-running situation of under investment” in mental health services in Northern Ireland was “out of step with the rest of the UK” and “must be tackled”.