Alastair Campbell is best known as Tony Blair’s former spin-doctor and at one time cut a forceful figure, very much in the public eye of UK politics. He has suffered from life-long bouts of debilitating depression however, and in the programme ‘Depression and Me’, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, explores some less common cures for depression whilst thinking about the impact it’s had on his life, and those around him. “I’ve been on antidepressants for years and years and none of them can stop it,” Campbell said in a statement. “I want to understand my depression and find out if modern science has any better ways of treating it. I’m hoping there’s something out there that can help me lead a happier life.”
Interestingly, whilst being prepared to consider the beneficial effects of psylocibin, one of the chemicals present in magic mushrooms, and magnetic pulses administered to the brain, Campbell states at the outset that, contrary to what his wife Fiona thinks, he is not interested at all in exploring his past in any detail, despite summarising that his childhood was an ‘unhappy’ one. The significance of the approach that resonates with him most deeply, though, is its simplicity. A psychiatrist he meets with in Toronto explains the concept of the ‘jam-jar’ approach to thinking about mental health.
The Jam-Jar for Mental Health
Imagine ourselves as all possessing a mental-illness jam-jar, that is vulnerable to being filled with two kinds of influences: genetic factors, plus environmental – or experiential factors. When the jar is filled up to the top, this compromises our mental well-being. Over time, the jar can fill with stressful experiences from life – BUT we can influence the size of the jar with protective factors. These can be added as extra ‘rings’ to the top of the jar – increasing its capacity – in the form of things like sleep, nutrition, exercise and good social support, so the jar can accommodate more factors without getting full. Alastair is struck by the fact that, although you can’t shrink the jar, you can extend it. He sets about creating a diagram of his own mental illness jar, stacking up rings at its neck to increase capacity with the more positive supporting factors he could think of from his own life. These included work, his wife, creatitivy, music and his beloved Burnley football team.
Recharging our Battery-Levels
I work with clients using a similar metaphor – that of imagining ourselves as a battery, that becomes run down by all of life’s challenges, and needs attentively re-charging in order to keep us afloat. The three ‘bed-rocks’ that underpin everything and I consider essential to our sound mental health are: daily nutrition in the form of generally healthy, regular meals, good sleep – as sleep deprivation makes everything feel bleaker – and regular exercise – which flushes out the stress hormones which would otherwise linger in our systems.
Take out pen and paper and have a go at considering your mental health jam-jar – or battery levels – whichever metaphor works best for you, and how you might extend its capacity, or charge up its power levels, in order to maximise your ability to guard against poor mental health and lead a more fulfilling life.