Sad but inspiring: In memory of Donald Campbell 


Vanessa Pinfold, Research Director

Vanessa Pinfold, Research Director

Monday morning and I was on my way to work catching up with the news and social media. I had missed an excellent piece in the Sunday Times by Alistair Campbell about his brother Donald who died recently aged 62. Luckily it is available as a blog. Reading, I was immediately absorbed. That’s the power of the personal narrative. I also felt very, very sad. Another person dying far too early after years of treatment for schizophrenia.

About 20 years ago I interviewed 25 people in-depth about their journey living with mental illness for my PhD. I was busy transcribing when I heard one of my research participants had died. A quietly spoken man in his 60’s had collapsed suddenly, leaving a grieving family. It was my first encounter with the physical health consequences of long term psychotropic medication use and other associated factors of living with schizophrenia. Men managing a severe mental illness are estimated to die 20 years earlier than men in the general population. I went to the funeral in shock. I wanted to show my respect for someone I got to know briefly when he had generously shared his story, and for the family, particularly elderly parents, who never expected to be burying their son. Fast forward to 4 years ago, when I heard of another parent’s grief for their son, dead at 50, because of medication complications. Too many people are suffering and we are not anywhere near close to discovering better treatments.

Alistair’s account communicates a flavour of the very talented man his brother clearly was. A brother, son, friend, colleague and quite importantly a piper. It sounded like Donald lived his own way, with his “shitty illness”, with immense sense of humour and keeping his older brother in check. He worked for 27 years at Glasgow University and was making a film with his niece when he died. I am sorry we won’t get to see more of him and his ‘story’. We need more people with schizophrenia in the public eye to help dispel commonly held myths and address stigma.

“The more people read about mental illness, and talk about mental illness, the better will be our campaign for more funding, improved research and services. The more people realize that mental illness is not incompatible with doing good jobs and having a life full of potential and opportunity, the better we will all be too. Donald was not ‘a schizophrenic’. He was a man who had schizophrenia. Big difference. He refused to let his life be defined by his illness”. 

Alistair Campbell on his brother

Donald was not defined by his illness. He was loved by family and friends for being Donald. Many of the themes raised by Alistair Campbell link into research we are carrying out at the McPin Foundation. Focusing on people’s strengths and assets not deficits through work on welling mapping and social capital. The importance of employment journeys in mental health recovery and a project evaluating a programme supporting 100 people with schizophrenia into work. Evaluating the Time to Change programme  – seeking to end the discrimination and stigma  that blight the lives of too many people living with mental health problems.

We will keep raising the profile of mental health, and the contribution of people with mental health problems, through our particular focus on championing experts by experience in mental health research. We are about to start a research project that will look at how narrative accounts can help other people’s mental health recovery journey. We know we will uncover many more people like Donald Campbell who inspire hope and optimism, despite their ‘shitty illnesses’.

Join us in our efforts – sign up to receive our e-newsletter and bulletin or donate to fund our life changing research.