Speaking out about mental health and suicide prevention
Two friends, Jonny Benjamin (MBE) and Neil Laybourn, discuss their mental health campaigning and how suicide brought them together.
Seeing the two friends joking over lunch, it may be surprising to hear how their paths crossed. One stopped the other from taking his own life.
On 14 January 2008, Jonny Benjamin, then aged 20, was in major mental distress. He had just spent one month in hospital, having recently been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Jonny, who had a long history of mental illness. He felt himself in a hopeless situation. He went to Waterloo Bridge, on the Thames, with the intention of ending his life. “Everything I knew about schizophrenia was completely negative. So, for me the diagnosis felt like a life sentence,” Jonny, now 31, explains.
“I was also massively struggling with my sexuality [Jonny is gay]. Coming from a Jewish background, where it was encouraged to marry someone of the opposite sex, that pushed me to the edge.” In hospital, he had been put on different medications. However, his despair worsened. “I felt I wasn’t ever going to leave hospital . I felt a burden to my family and friends, and it seemed like the only way out of this nightmare,” he recalls.
Neil Laybourn, then a personal trainer, was walking over Waterloo Bridge on his way to work when he saw Jonny. He immediately tried to help. “I thought, ‘there’s a young guy over there who is a similar age to me, obviously in distress. My first question was ‘why are you sitting on the bridge?’ He told me he was suicidal.
“I wanted to tell him, ‘I don’t know what’s going on for you, I’m not going to pretend I do. But here’s maybe another way to look at it, just for five minutes’.”
Neil, now 35 and a father, told Jonny he believed he would get better – something Jonny says he never believed until then. He suggested they continue their conversation in a café. At that point, the police arrived and took Jonny back to hospital.
Astonishingly, the pair were reunited, six years later, after Jonny had come to prominence as a mental health vlogger. The #FindMike social media campaign launched by charity Rethink Mental Illness went viral. It was followed by 319 million people worldwide. The campaign so called because Jonny could not remember Neil’s real name.
The duo now campaign, both in the UK and abroad, about the importance of being open about mental ill health. They speak at schools, businesses and in prisons. They were both awarded honorary degrees from the University of Bristol, in recognition of their campaigning work. Jonny and Neil even ran the London Marathon in 2017 for the Heads Together charity.
Mental health stigma
Jonny believes the stigma surrounding mental ill health stems from the fact that it isn’t visible, in the same way as a physical complaint.
“If you break a leg, people have more understanding. But mental health is so misunderstood,” he explains, letting his fish finger sandwich go cold while he speaks. Neil, meanwhile, takes this opportunity to wolf down his own lunch, joking that he is not as polite. “People are scared and don’t want to talk about it, particularly men, as we’re not used to opening up.”
Jonny, made an MBE in 2016 for services to mental health and suicide prevention, has learnt through his own experience the danger of hiding one’s true feelings. He now doesn’t flinch when asked about his past, despite the questions recalling more difficult times.
As a young child, he experienced delusions. Aged 10, he started hearing voices that were initially benign. They later became nasty. Other symptoms of his condition are paranoia and intrusive thoughts, but he tried to keep these to himself.
“In school, we didn’t talk about mental health. We just watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. So, I thought mentally ill people were scary and locked up, and that it wasn’t a good future for them,” he says. He winces at the memory, which is clearly an uncomfortable one.
“I didn’t want my parents to know because I was embarrassed – of what they would think, of what it would lead to, in terms of doctors and hospital. I thought there was something wrong with me. That it was happening because of something I’d done.”
Jonny also says he didn’t have the words to talk about mental health. He, but is now a firm advocate of speaking up. “Talking for me has been the best medicine. I can’t sugar-coat it; it’s tough, when you’re struggling. Maybe you feel embarrassed or ashamed. But it’s a relief to finally talk and not have it all on your own shoulders,” he admits. “Go to someone you trust – a GP, family member, friend, or a charity.”
If a loved one is struggling with mental ill health but is unwilling to speak about it, Jonny says that patience and persistence are key to breaking through their barriers. “My mum would cut things out of the paper or talk about a documentary on mental health. That was her way of talking to me about it,” he says. “At first I didn’t want her to talk about it, but it did eventually get through. My dad started to talk to me in the car and at first, I found it difficult and hard to articulate. But, as he did it more, I began to talk to him.”
Mental health in schools
75% of mental health issues start before the age of 18. Concerned about these statistics, Jonny and Neil set up ThinkWell. Thinkwell is an interactive mental health programme. It is now delivered in schools by trained facilitators.
They believe it is just as important to educate young people about mental health as about careers, sex and racism.
Neil says: “The biggest thing you can do is make sure that mental health is part of the conversation. They need to know that we all have bad and good days, that people do experience suicidal thoughts. Otherwise you’ve contributed to the stigma by not addressing it. Don’t leave it out.”
They would also like to see mental health addressed within the national curriculum.
“In history, we talk about Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Florence Nightingale, who all struggled with their mental health,” explains Jonny. “In English, you could look at Romeo and Juliet, when they take their own lives. It would normalise the conversation around mental health and make it less of a taboo.”
The pair also want to see changes implemented in mental health services, particularly for young people. “There’s either a long waiting list for child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), or they don’t get the support they need,” explains Jonny.
“CAMHS ends at 18 – there’s no follow-up. You have to get on to another waiting list for adult mental health services and see someone new. A lot of people really suffer during that time. Many CAMHS are saying they can’t see someone unless they’re actively suicidal as they are overstretched.”
Jonny experienced his first psychotic episode at university aged 20. While he has unfortunately had relapses, he is now aware of his triggers – a lack of sleep, stress and alcohol. He puts in place measures to try to help maintain good mental health.
“Some people think it’s selfish to talk about self-care. But it’s actually healthy and really important to encourage the idea that people need to look after themselves. Whether it’s having a bath or going for a run.
“Just as you encourage young people to do physical exercise. It’s important for them to do mental exercises, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga and taking revision breaks.”
Neil, who describes himself and Jonny now as a ‘double act’, also believes therapy should not be a taboo. He revealed that he and Jonny attend therapy sessions together.
He describes Jonny’s acceptance of his mental health condition as an evolution of his journey. “We speak to people who blame circumstances. If that’s your mindset, that’s a big obstacle for you to overcome,” he recognises. “I’m not saying Jonny has completely recovered. But, the more people who hear about somebody like him, who is saying ‘my relationship with my mental health is much healthier’ – that’s a big message that needs to be put out more.”
For more information
This NHS guide explains how to access mental health services. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy can also help you find a suitable therapist in your area.
Benenden Health may also be able to help. Over-16s can access our Mental Health Support Service. This provides short-term support for mild to moderate mental-health issues. It can be helpful while awaiting an NHS referral. Call our 24/7 helpline on 0800 414 8247.
Also, the social initiative Time To Change has compiled a list of useful resources and helplines.
The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Despair to Hope by Jonny Benjamin and Britt Pflüger is published by Bluebird, priced £16.99