• Doug Drinkwater

Suicide, schools and me: One man’s journey to mental health disrupter

Nine years on from standing on the brink of suicide, Jonny Benjamin is now a prominent mental health campaigner working in schools and prisons and pressing the government for much-needed changes. Here, he tells his story to Sylo Magazine.

You probably recognise Jonny Benjamin. You may have seen his name in the papers, his face on television, or perhaps read his views on social media. Some of you may have come across his self-help videos on YouTube, or more latterly become aware of his work for a number of mental health charities.

Jonny first came to the public’s attention in 2008, when his #findMike social media campaign made national headlines, as he sought to find the man who ultimately saved his life.

Jonny, suffering from a form of schizophrenia and having ran away from a psychiatric ward where he had been staying, was planning to end his life on Waterloo Bridge, London, when a passer-by intervened, and talked him down. It was, as Jonny explains, this intervention which not only saved his life, but changed his purpose in life too.

The underlying cause of that day on the bridge was his schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression, which led to him hearing voices and "being delusional."

“I thought I was being possessed by the devil, and I didn't tell anyone because I was embarrassed and ashamed. I got to this stage where I was running down of the middle of this dual-carriageway, out of control. It was a horrible experience.

“I was really unwell. Now I can talk about it, but I couldn't believe I was on a dual-carriageway, or in a psychiatric ward, [and I was thinking] how do I recover? I thought it was impossible, hence me going to the bridge. I thought this was me forever.”

Finding Mike, or rather Neil

In the days leading up to that day on Waterloo Bridge, Jonny had been staying at psychiatric hospital, where he was being treated for his schizoaffective order. Talking to him in a coffee shop in Shoreditch, it's clear that this experience had a huge impact on his state of mind.

“In the hospital where I was, it was really difficult. Everyone was really unwell, and I said a few times to the staff ‘I want to hurt myself’ and they would just send me the suicide ward, which is where someone watched you 24/7”, he said. Jonny adds that this surveillance would include guards watching from a distance when he went to the toilet.

“It was so intrusive.”

Leaving the ward one day, he ran down the middle of the highway, in his own words ‘out of control’. He found himself standing on the busy Waterloo Bridge, where thousands of commuters cross each day. In amongst this sea of suits, one stranger stepped forward and tried to help 20-year old Jonny. His name, as it later turned out, was Neil Laybourn.

So, what made Neil stand out? “Well, firstly, it was him stopping and showing some empathy, and some kindness and patience.

“He was someone who was like, ‘let’s talk’. It sounds quite simple, but no-one had really done that before. He said ‘I’ll take the morning off work, we’ll go for coffee’ and that was the start of it really.

“He said to me, two major things; One was, ‘I’ve been in your shoes, and look at me now’. That was big. To see a young guy say he’s been there, and got through it, was big. He was also very grounded. He said ‘I think you will get better’. Having someone say that -- and he really believed it -- was huge.”

The two parted ways later that day and it was only six years later -- on 14 January 2014 to be precise -- that a social media campaign pushed them to be together once more.

Having got his life back on track, Jonny went onto trying to find the man who saved his life. Thinking the stranger's name was Mike, Jonny shared a short video clip and the hashtag #findMike, and it went viral; within 24 hours, the message had been shared 43,000 times on Twitter and watched over a million times. Celebrities like Stephen Fry, Kate Nash and Nick Clegg also helped to spread the word.

The two were reunited later and they are still friends today. In fact, they worked together on the acclaimed Stranger on the Bridge documentary and ran together at the London Marathon together for Heads Together, a mental health charity backed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince Henry (Harry) of Wales.

The road to recovery

But Jonny’s story, as he candidly admits, has not been easy or straightforward. The road to getting better, and living with his condition, has been slow and sometimes arduous.

It was six years before he ventured into mental health campaigning, and even that route only seemingly came about off the back of his successful YouTube self-help videos (out of which he appears to have built his own community around mental health).

“It did take quite a few years to get back on track….it was a difficult few years of messing around with medication, having lots of different therapy. It was really trial and error.”

"I am better now than was. In my teens, I was unwell but I didn't know I was unwell. But that’s mental health isn't it?”

During difficult times, he explained he needed motivation to keep going. He then started doing YouTube videos around mental health, made the award-winning Stranger on the Bridge Channel 4 documentary with Neil, which led onto his Thinkwell initiative and other activities, including writing the first of three books, all due for release in 2018. The future now looks a lot brighter.

“Helping people, using my experiences to help other people, that kept me going.” Today, he cites even the smallest of measures, like his brother texting him once a week, as inspiration for keeping going, through the day-to-day ups and downs of everyday life.

Government inaction on mental health

Today, Jonny is a changed man, the face of the ThinkWell initiative, recently awarded a CBE for mental health awareness, and a regular commentator in national newspapers and health blogs on mental health, depression and suicide prevention.

Through his YouTube channel, he continues to talk openly about mental health, suicide and being a man in this day and age. These videos are remarkably open in an age where most people hide their true feelings behind a veneer of social media filters or Internet memes.

And such is his growing profile that he's also had conversations with government officials about putting mental health on the agenda, even if he is disparaging about their efforts today as far is funding is concerned.

“The mental health system is really under so much pressure. I mean the whole health system is, but partly mental health is because it gets cut a lot more than physical health….the funding in horrendous..”

“At the moment some young people are waiting three years just for an appointment with a psychologist or that time, they can't just sit there and wait three years, and we can’t expect that condition not to worsen.”

“The government is dismissive,” he adds of mental health, citing conversations with ministers who do little following introductory meetings. “...Nothing seems to happen.”

“In Scotland, what the government has done, they have put money in suicide prevention campaign. It’s called ‘Choose Life’ and it’s working -- suicide has dropped by 20 percent. In Scotland they put suicide prevention lines on taxis, which is great.”

Of the UK’s Suicide Prevention Strategy, he says “there’s no money in it”.

“Economically, it makes sense. Everyday there's suicide on railways it costs around £1 million on the train delay, the...clean up. The cost of like putting a sign on a bridge or train line, or a link to samaritans, is so much less...People don’t want to deal with issue, it’s a taboo subject still.”

The problem is escalating, even if mega-stars like Bruce Springsteen are admitting to mental health issues. The problem, says Jonny, is far worse with men than women.

“The part for men is still macho culture and its still...i felt ‘ahh I can't really seem to be vulnerable and emotional, and certain role man has to play’ so i felt uncomfortable.. And that’s why, if you look at suicide rate, it hasn't changed in 30 years. For women, it has halved.”

“I think it is macho culture...and that hasn't changed really, you must be strong, ‘manup’ - I hate that term - and ‘big boys don’t cry’. Those phrases still exist. Those things, those pressures, are still put on men. And that really needs to change.

“Women , there’s much higher rate of being mental health services, they go doctor much more both mental and mental health, they outlive men...because of this whole ‘must be strong’ all the time.

He does note some small mental health campaigns, like Men’s Sheds and The Lions Barbers collective, are making a difference with a select group of men.

“It has got to start in needs to. It is really sad, when I go into schools, it will finish, the talk will finish and you ask if there are any questions.

"Usually it’s the girls that put their hands up and ask the questions. Then it's guys, quietly, and they say ‘can I have a word?’. Its ingrained in young men from a very young age.

Thinkwell are also looking to bring this awareness - which includes the use of video and having an on-site physiatrist -- into primary schools.

“To be honest, I think this stuff needs to happen in workplaces, at universities.” He says much the same happens in workplaces, with women put hands at end of talk, and men “come up at the end”.

Mental health schemes

The Thinkwell initiative was set-up last year, in association with Pixel Learning.

The concept was designed to go into secondary schools, with primary schools on the roadmap as well, and combining film with dialogue, drawing, quizzes, creative writing and advice to make mental health more accessible.

“It’s a number of things - essentially we want to break down stigma that attached to mental health.” A therapist comes in and talks too and Jonny believes that younger people can learn to recover and manage their issue – whether’s that bipolar, depression or OCD, if given the right information at the right time.

But getting buy-in from schools isn’t always so easy: “Schools contact us, our team are contacting schools themselves. Some schools are really open to it...some schools are like 'we don’t have mental health issues in our schools'...and I am like ‘come on’.

So how do you manage your mental health?

"For me, at the beginning, people would be like ‘talk to me’, but it doesn't work like that...going out with someone, going to the cinema or for a walk, and [the issue] being dropped in more subtly, rather than we need to sit and talk.

“I say that to people - don't make it so formal and serious, do it whilst doing something. Me and my dad used to talk in the car, and I didn't have to look at him. That was much do it in a different approach.

“Again, when I’ve spoken, show your own vulnerabilities - don't be afraid to show own vulnerabilities, even parents with kids. They need to know you're not perfect and to go through our struggles, in order to support them.”

From so close to the edge, to helping others - Jonny Benjamin gives hope to everyone that mental health is by no means the end.

You can still donate to Jonny's JustGiving page here. Both he and Neil have already raised an incredible £35,000 for Heads Together.

#mentalhealth #suicide #depression