Peter Campbell obituary

·5-min read

For those who have come of age in a country where the crisis of mental health often tops the headlines, it can seem inconceivable that within living memory people who experienced mental health difficulties were often ignored and locked away.

Describing himself as a mental health system survivor, the activist Peter Campbell, who has died aged 73, experienced the old psyschiatric asylums as well as the newer systems of care in the community that replaced them. He worked for more than 40 years to end the marginalisation of those subject to the powers of the mental health system, and to help people who live with mental health difficulties find a collective and credible voice to advocate for change.

Peter was instrumental to the mid-1980s flowering of activist groups led by people who had experienced the harmful realities of psychiatric practices such as restraint, seclusion, over-medication and detention without representation.

In 1986, he co-founded Survivors Speak Out, the first network organisation, enabling people to work together to share information and campaign for rights and better conditions in hospitals and in the community.

Peter played a leading part until 1996, writing newsletters, advising groups and undertaking research. The organisation set a course for user/survivor-led groups – still visible in the work of UK charities such as the National Survivor User Network.

Peter was a gifted communicator, who could hold a room rapt via poetry, in speech-making, in a meeting or through teaching. Throughout the 90s he was a lecturer and trainer, working with psychiatrists, nurses, housing officers and other health professionals to give the user view. Mental health services in England and Wales are now regularly developed with the views and opinions of those that will use them included, and Peter’s work, and those of his colleagues, helped challenge the stereotyping of mental health service users as people whose experiences could be ignored.

In 1986 Peter appeared in We’re Not Mad... We’re Angry, probably the first network television programme made under full editorial control of those with lived experience of mental health difficulty. Broadcast by Channel 4, the film mixed dramatised sequences scripted by Peter with testimony from people who had been detained in mental health hospitals.

Appearing in the documentary himself, Peter explained. “If I’m angry, the degree to which I am angry about my treatment is not because I want to tear the system down. It’s not because I want to seek vengeance. It’s because I see thousands of people like me whose positive contribution to society is being rinsed down the drain.”

Peter spent eight years as a council member of Mental Health Media in the 1990s, during a period where the charity began to make its own educational films. A firm believer in the need to preserve the history of those deemed “mad”, he helped instigate the Testimony project, a series of 50 life story videos recording the experiences of m ental health survivors including those detained in the old asylums – now held in the British Library oral history collections.

Born in the village of Strathtay in Perthshire into a well-to-do family, Peter grew up on a farm with his brothers, Lennox and John, the son of James Campbell, a doctor turned ornithologist, and Mary (nee Gray), a nurse during the second world war. He was educated at Trinity College, Glenalmond (now Glenalmond College) near Perth, and went to Jesus College, Cambridge, to study history.

At university he began to experience mental health difficulties. His father died when Peter was 21, and he went into mental health services for the first time in 1967. In his own words, “for the next 15 years I was in and out of hospital, adrift... isolated, alienated from myself, from other people... Silenced. I had no voice at all.”

Peter joined Mind in Camden, north London, as a volunteer in the early 80s, helping to set up the Camden Mental Health Consortium. In 1991, he co-founded Survivors’ Poetry to promote poetry by survivors of mental distress. Published in 2006, his poetry book Brown Linoleum Green Lawns drew praise for its intense, humorous exploration of life on mental health wards. A prolific writer, Peter was working on a new book of poems at the time of his death.

In 1999 he experienced a sudden, major hearing loss and became deaf. He continued to teach and was awarded honorary doctorates by Anglia Ruskin College and the Open University.

In 2005 he co-founded the Survivors History Group, a project to record and archive the history of self-advocacy and organisation. Writing in 2020, Peter concluded that, while society and mental health services listen to people who live with mental ill-health more than ever, services remain custodial rather than caring and hospitals still leave people disempowered, much as they did 50 years ago.

In 2006, the mental health charity Mind presented Peter with its Diamond Champion award, acknowledging how he had done more than anyone for users of mental health services in England and Wales over the course of its first 60 years. “Peter’s contribution to the service user movement is vast,” said Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind. “It’s hard to imagine the movement today without Peter’s constant activism and his advocacy for a better deal for people with mental health problems. His radical work has both influenced services and inspired others to speak out.”

Friends and colleagues remember him as someone who would visit you in hospital, put you up at his flat, offer you support and encouragement; a warm, gentle and funny man adept at diplomacy.

He is survived by his brother Lennox, a niece, Anna, and three nephews, James, Angus and Colin.

Peter Campbell, mental health activist, educator and poet, born 3 January 1949; died 24 April 2022

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