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Page last updated at 19:06 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

If we had turned away Churchill...

Alastair Campbel
by Alastair Campbell
Former press chief to Tony Blair

I have written a report with historian Nigel Jones on famous figures in history who had mental health problems.

Mental health in the public eye

The report, for the anti-discrimination campaign Time to Change, is called A World Without... It tries to imagine how different the world would be without the achievements of five giants of history - Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie.

Why those five?

Because all left a huge mark on the world; also because all of them, at some point in their lives, had what today would be termed mental illness, mainly depression.

Darwin's panic attacks

As I watch politicians and other public figures deal with the pressures of modern leadership, not least dealing with 24 hour scrutiny by a harsh and often unforgiving media, I sometimes wonder how these great historic figures would have fared had they been alive today.

Winston Churchill
Would another wartime leader have been as successful as Churchill?
As I say in the Daily Mirror, would media and public have been understanding about their conditions, or used them against them?

Let's say Britain had decided to reject Churchill on account of his Black Dog and his drinking. Would another leader have emerged to lead Britain as he did, to the same outcome, victory over the Nazis? We will never know.

When I read of Darwin's panic attacks, his stomach disorders, his palpitations and his bursting into floods of tears, I can't help wondering whether he would have survived a live press conference in the modern age.

"Well," says the 24 hour news anchor "Charles Darwin in some distress there as he tries to explain his controversial theory of evolution, and it's hard to see how his theory can gain acceptance if he can't explain it without crying. Anyway, send us your texts and e mails and help answer the question of the day - should celebrity scientists cry in public? For yes press green, for no press red. Now, more on David Cameron's new maths czar, Carol Vorderman..."

When I cracked up

Marie Curie in her laboratory
Double Nobel laureate Marie Curie suffered severe depression
As we're talking numbers - one in four of us will suffer mental illness at some point in our lives. I am among the one in four.

I had a drink problem and a nervous breakdown in 1986. I have had depression on and off ever since. I was really lucky.

When I cracked up, my old boss took me back to my old job, despite his anger at my having left in the first place. And when Tony Blair asked me to work for him, I told him in detail about my mental health history.

"I'm not worried if you're not worried," he said. "What if I am worried?" I said. "I'm still not worried," said TB.

Something to offer

But the stats suggest I am in a minority. Nine out of 10 people with mental health problems say they have experienced discrimination. Four out of 10 employers say they would consider taking on someone with a history of mental illness.

That leaves six out of 10 who would not. Six out of 10 who cannot see that someone with a history of mental illness just might have something to offer.

People who, if a Churchill, a Lincoln, a Darwin, a Nightingale or a Curie had applied for a job, and admitted to their sometimes troubled state of mind, would have turned them away as being unfit for purpose...


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