"No wonder sleep deprivation is a form of torture. You think you're going mad." Interview by Matthew Campbell.
Tom Bradby had everything he could have wanted. A happy childhood, a privileged education, professional success. A novelist and screenwriter, he was also a friend of Princes William and Harry and a familiar face to the nation as the presenter of ITV's News at Ten.
Until, last May, he disappeared from the screen. He had fallen seriously ill the month before. The symptoms were not physical. He feared he was going mad.
After reading the news to millions of viewers, Bradby would lie awake at night — at its worst, not sleeping for a single hour. By day, exhausted, he struggled to get through his work, insisting to colleagues that everything was all right. It was not. He remembers five completely sleepless nights over a period of three weeks, interspersed with nights when, unable to sleep, he would feel "total panic" at 3am and take a sleeping pill, only to wake up three hours later, unable to go back to sleep.
After a week's holiday over Easter, he came back to work for one day, then had to take sick leave. He remembers being back at work in time for the birth of Prince Louis, the third child of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, on April 23, but was exhausted. "I got through that day," says Bradby, 52, "but I felt terrible the next morning and couldn't get out of bed.
"Suddenly I was in a really bad crisis, a total mess," he tells me, speaking about his ordeal for the first time in an interview. "I was in a terrible state, trying to do News at Ten and limping through it."
He has invited me to his flat in Pimlico, central London, to discuss his seventh novel, Secret Service, a gripping thriller about Russian efforts to undermine our democracy by installing an agent of influence as prime minister. But the subject of insomnia keeps popping up. Kate, the story's protagonist, an official at the foreign intelligence service MI6, suffers from it too, tossing and turning all night as she frets about the security of her country and family. "It's no surprise that intelligence agencies around the world use sleep deprivation as a form of torture," Bradby says. "It's really frightening, you just don't know what's happening, you think you're going mad." Indeed, extended periods of "total insomnia" — not sleeping at all — can lead to delusions, paranoia and psychosis.
With three grown-up children and a beautiful wife, Bradby, the public school-educated son of a naval officer, had never suspected that he might end up afflicted in this way. Until that terrifying period in April last year, he had never had any real trouble with sleep.
Facing up to the problem — seeking help and telling his boss he needed time off — was hard for him. A GP friend referred him to Dr Stephen Pereira, a "really brilliant" psychiatrist and specialist in cognitive behavioural therapy who had treated Antonio Horta-Osorio, the boss of Lloyds Bank, who has said his insomnia "almost broke" him in 2011.
Bradby's condition was so bad that Pereira told him he was going through "the mental health equivalent of a heart attack". He signed him off work for three months.
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"I felt this intense relief when I was able to admit that I wasn't well," Bradby says, adding that his bosses at ITV were "amazing" when he gave them a full briefing about what was wrong — proof, he believes, of how attitudes to mental health have evolved.
How Bradby dealt with his problem makes him an exception, however. When it comes to mental health issues, men are more likely than women to grin and bear it: they account for only 36 per cent of GP referrals to psychiatrists. They are also more likely than women to wait for more than a year to tell a friend or loved one that they are suffering — perhaps an indicator to why suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.
When it comes to insomnia — now classified as a mental health disorder by the NHS — figures suggest a ruinous effect on the nation's health. The number of people who visited their doctor for insomnia doubled between 1993 and 2007, and NHS data shows a tenfold increase over the past decade in prescriptions for melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep.
Bradby has no doubt his insomnia was a symptom of an underlying mental health disorder. Hired by ITV at the age of 23, he became the Ireland correspondent, reporting on the peace process, before being made Asia correspondent in 1999, when he was injured in the leg by a rocket flare while covering riots in Jakarta. However, he believes it has been the more recent deaths of his parents that triggered his psychological issues. His mother, a teacher to whom he was very close, died from liver cancer in 2012, while his father died from a heart attack in 2016.
"As an only child, it was just much more of a big deal for me than I allowed myself to accept at the time. And I think if you go into a big event like that and you don't have much spirituality, that makes it harder, bleaker. It's easy to see a connection between that and — if you're an only child — fear of further loss."
Instead of allowing himself time to "absorb the emotional impact" of loss, he "went into manic overactivity, I didn't say no to anything. I went on charity boards, accepted speaking engagements. My wife repeatedly said to me, 'What are you doing? You've got to slow down.' And I was, like, 'No, I'll be fine.' I genuinely thought I was indestructible and could cope with anything," he says.
Starting therapy, he says, has been a revelation. Bradby came to realise that he had been pushing himself too hard for too long. Pereira taught him to switch off. "It's almost like shutting down your entire computer system. I put away my phone. I didn't speak to anyone. I just walked the dogs and sat in the garden and cooked, and that was about the whole sum total of my day for three months."
As a result of the prescription medicine, he slept for up to 12 hours a day for the first month. "I was out cold night after night." Though still on an antidepressant "with a very sedative effect", he is in a "massively better mental place" and back at work presenting the news. "I don't tend to get troubled so much by things any more — touch wood," he says. Today, he sleeps eight or nine hours a night "because I don't go to sleep with any worries in my head. It's been an incredibly liberating process."
One of the few times he went out during his recovery was to attend the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with his wife, Claudia, last May. "It was the first time I'd done anything except for doctor's appointments since I'd been signed off work," he recalls. He chatted that day to Prince William about his treatment.
"I've talked with William and Harry quite a bit," he adds. "Both have suffered the immense trauma of their mother dying in such an incredibly distressing way. That trauma has gone on right into the present day.So they have quite a deep understanding and a really substantial degree of empathy for other people going through it, which is one of their many good qualities, and you are almost immediately into quite a specific and textured conversation about it."
"One of the first things Harry said was, 'You are already on the upside of the curve because the biggest problem is admitting you've got a problem. Once you've done that, things get easier' — and he was right about that."
The princes, he believes, have helped enormously to "destigmatise" mental health problems through their work on initiatives such as Heads Together, and this had helped Bradby to confront his own.
Today, he has immersed himself in literature about psychological health — "I've never worked so hard at anything in my life," he says — and become an expert on mental wellbeing. "Now I spend half of my life telling people here's what got me better, here's what you've got to do — accept you are near a cliff edge, stop, move away from it, educate yourself. Nobody wants to go off the cliff."
So, how does he make time for his writing? Claudia, who used to work for a literary agent, has helped him. "She's a very integral part of it and always has been," he confides. Another of his secrets, it seems, is to write on the train, travelling between their homes in Hampshire and London.
For the latest thriller, for which he has already sold the film rights, Bradby drew from his own experiences as ITN's former security correspondent from 2003 to 2005 to create the world of espionage. "I do have a couple of useful sources," he says, modestly. "I spent a lot of time grilling them. I was lucky enough to be able to say to these people, you know, 'If you were me and you were writing this and you wanted it to be credible, what would you suggest?' "
In the novel, Kate, the sleep-deprived heroine, discovers from a bug planted on an oligarch's yacht that the Russians have an agent in the race to replace the prime minister. In today's world it does not seem far-fetched, an echo of the suspicions surrounding America's election of Donald Trump in 2016.
The threats to western society are real, Bradby says. "For all of our adult lifetimes we have been able to rely on the dominance of the West, the security of the West, but that, I think, is now under question in a way that it hasn't been since the end of the Cold War."
Unsettling as the new cold war is, it is a boon for thriller writers. But Bradby has no intention of giving up his day job just yet.
"Some people say to me, 'Aren't you going to give up to write?' And I think, 'Why would I?' " All the more so since he got better. "I go into work and love it, whereas before I was just tired all the time. I sit there and I'm really pleased to be there. I hope that comes across on air."
Secret Service is published on May 30
Written by: Matthew Campbell
© The Times of London