‘I can’t stay in this place. But I can’t stay at home. I’m just going insane. Why can’t they just declare me insane? That’s what I am. G-d, why on earth did you put me here?’
Those words were written by Jonny Benjamin in a diary entry dated January 13, 2008. He planned to take his own life on January 14.
Jonny’s pain and agitation is palpable, as he privately hoped his mind would be still and ‘all the voices will go to sleep’.
He described January 14 as ‘a mind-numbingly normal hospital morning’.
He woke up at seven, took his meds, saw his psychiatrist, and had breakfast.
After suffering from mental illness for most of his life – eventually being diagnosed with schizophrenia – Jonny decided that on January 14 he would take his own life.
He left the psychiatric hospital in London where he was admitted telling staff he was just nipping for a cigarette. When outside he sprinted as fast as possible to the nearest tube station and headed to London.
Although it was ‘bitterly cold’, Jonny wore only a t-shirt and jeans. Jonny knew where he was heading and he made it to his destination: Waterloo Bridge.
He climbed over the railings and stood on the very edge, looking down at the water, moments away from jumping into the icy Thames below, allowing it to swallow him.
Thousands of commuters walked past. Jonny didn’t notice them, but more worryingly, they didn’t seem to notice him; or maybe they did but none dared say anything.
They ignored him, this man standing on the wrong side of the railings in evident distress, teetering on the edge of it all, as if he were a ghost, or a burden to their day.
They walked on in ignorant silence.
That is, they all walked on besides one man, who would later, after a huge media campaign to track him down, be revealed as Neil Laybourn.
Neil stopped and asked: ‘Why are you sitting on the bridge?’ Jonny was hesitant to engage in conversation, telling him, ‘Don’t come so close’ over and over again. Eventually Jonny told Neil how he was feeling.
Neil replied with nine words which saved Jonny’s life:
I really believe you’re going to get better, mate.
That was the lowest point Jonny had ever reached – but just that one person, that one stranger, believing in him, gave him the strength to continue with life.
When Jonny agreed to step back over the railings, he was immediately arrested with no sympathy and thrown into the back of a police car, but he never forgot the stranger who talked him out of suicide.
After a gargantuan media campaign across the globe called #FindMike, Jonny was able to track down the stranger. Amazingly, they’re still great friends to this day.
When asked if he’s still close to Neil, Jonny told UNILAD:
Yeah I am. I was just with him earlier today. We still work together. We have a very unique relationship. You know from him meeting me on the bridge, and then the search to find him, being reunited.
He’s just become a dad actually, he’s got a little baby girl which is lovely.
However inspiring it is, Jonny and Neil’s story isn’t exactly the reason we’re here. Sadly, there isn’t a stranger on the bridge for everyone in that situation.
This is summed up by a sickening statistic: suicide is the leading cause of death for men below 40. 1,600 young people take their own lives every year in the UK. Many of them do so while on huge waiting lists for vital treatment which could’ve saved them.
Lots of mental health experts, including Jonny, believe these statistics could be massively diminished by eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health.
To coincide with Mental Health Week 2018, which has a particular focus on stress, we caught up with Jonny to ask him how we can get rid of the stigma surrounding mental health.
Speaking to UNILAD, Jonny, now an award-winning mental health campaigner, explained:
It needs to start with education. The younger we tackle it, the easier it will be. My big thing is to get it into schools, get it embedded into the curriculum.
I don’t understand why we don’t talk about mental health the same as we talk about other subjects in school. History, English. You know, we study Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.
We have PE, why is there no focus on mental health education? It’s just as important as your physical well-being.
Touching on how important it is to tackle stress at a young age, Jonny continued:
I go into schools a lot and young people want to understand. They know it’s important.
We teach young people about looking after their physical bodies but there’s nothing about mental health. And they want to learn it, how to manage their stress, anger, and self-confidence.
Here’s a short video to help you deal with any stress you might be feeling:
Jonny went onto state that he doesn’t understand why we separate mental health and physical health.
In his own words, he said:
I don’t know why we separate mental health and physical health. They’re joined up. The brain and the body.
Things happen in the brain and just like other parts of the body, you know the lungs, the liver, the heart, they go wrong sometimes, and the same thing happens to the brain and the mind.
Jonny then went onto say something incredibly interesting. He believes we should stop saying mental health altogether and instead refer to it as brain health or even just health in general and combine physical and mental health into one.
Why? Because the word ‘mental’ is outdated. It springs to mind images of One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and The Silence Of The Lambs. The word is stigmatised when it shouldn’t be.
One in four people in the UK have a ‘mental’ illness. Surely we should be doing everything we can to take the stigma away from our health when lives are at risk?
One line from Jonny’s book, The Stranger On The Bridge, reads: ‘Sometimes the stigma that comes with mental illness or addiction is harder than actually having to deal with the problem itself’.
He told UNILAD:
You look after your heart, we need to make it less separate – mental and physical. Just just call it health.
At another particularly interesting part of his book, The Stranger On The Bridge, Jonny talks about when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
I can’t believe i’m saying these words.. My first book is out now! Please take care if reading as it may be triggering. Ultimately though we want it to offer a message of hope & recovery. Excited to share book two next year-a tribute to overcoming adversity. Massive thanks to my co-writer and now dear friend @BrittPfluger and all the team at @booksbybluebird who I couldn’t have done this without. Also to @neillaybourn who has the final word (for once haha) in the book! And to Prince William for his kind and generous foreword. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stranger-Bridge-Journey-Despair-Hope/dp/1509846425
He writes: ‘There are so many myths and misconceptions, it’s no wonder I thought it was the end of the world and that I would never get better’.
Jonny added everything he had ever heard prior to that about schizophrenia had ‘implied violence’. But that’s really not the case. And this, again, is all part of the problem.
But how do we combat the stigma? As well as through education, Jonny believes the government needs to make some big changes.
In 2012 the government pledged #parityofesteem or “equality” between mental and physical health treatment.
6 years later & it is nowhere to be seen!!!!
Isn’t it time all of us, the people, were prioritised over things like Brexit.
We desperately need a #mentalhealthrevolution
— Jonny Benjamin MBE (@MrJonnyBenjamin) May 9, 2018
He told us:
It needs to come from the top. The government need to make it equal [services for both mental and physical health].
What I keep hearing from the government is ‘we’re doing more’ – but we never see. We never see any action and that’s been going on for years.
These words, these pledges, that the government are making – but I don’t see any change on the ground. It’s a longer waiting list, less people being seen, less staff, less help, less treatment choices for people.
I see it getting much worse, it’s very frustrating. For anyone who works in mental health it’s massively frustrating. Everyone’s in agreement, we really need to see action, not just words.
I can’t believe i’m saying these words..
My first book is out now!
Please take care if reading as it may be triggering.
Ultimately though i want it to offer a message of hope & recovery.
Excited to share book 2 next year-a tribute to overcoming adversityhttps://t.co/Cxo5qClUZP
— Jonny Benjamin MBE (@MrJonnyBenjamin) May 3, 2018
However Jonny went onto claim everyone has a role to play in reducing the stigma surrounding mental health. Every workplace, the media, the film industry.
That negative connotation between mental health, especially schizophrenia, comes from society and the media. The media has a big role to play. There’s very rarely a positive film about somebody with a mental illness such as schizophrenia.
The only time in the media you read about it is when something bad has happened. You never see all the great things people with a mental health issue are doing.
All that does is increase stigma. I’ve met many people with schizophrenia and 90 per cent of the time they tell me they don’t tell anyone about their diagnosis because they’re scared of the reaction and the stigma.
The only positive film about mental health I can think of is A Beautiful Mind. That was nice to see. We need more films like that.
So that people with a mental illness know that they can overcome and achieve. We don’t have enough of that.
You can watch the trailer for A Beautiful Mind below:
We don’t see or hear enough of that. I think as well as the government, all sectors of society have a role to play. Workplaces could do more. They need to talk about it more. Physical health is massively prioritised.
They check your seat to make sure it’s okay for your back; your computer screen for your eyes; some jobs offer free gym memberships etc – but what are we doing to look after our minds in the workplace?
It’s not considered to be on the same path as physical health.
Jonny concluded our conversation explaining that in the future he hopes there’ll be tips to benefit your mental health just like there are tips to better your body now.
He told UNILAD:
Another good way of raising awareness would be to see more tips on how to keep your mental health healthy.
We always see things like: How to look after your body through exercise and nutrition; five things you should do every day for a better body etc – we need more of that for mental health! We need guidance and tips on wellbeing.
The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Despair to Hope by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Britt Pfluger is published by Bluebird, price £16.99.
Talking is often the first step to moving forward. While talking about mental health is vital, UNILAD are calling for action this Mental Health Awareness Week.
We are petitioning the government to improve mental health services offered on the NHS for young people, who sometimes have to wait ten years from the moment they experience their first symptoms to get adequate treatment.
We have written to Jeremy Hunt MP to tell him about our petition and demand the government take action. You can help by signing our petition, in partnership with WHOLE, here. To find out more about our campaign you can read our manifesto.
You can speak to someone confidentially about your mental health and wellbeing by calling one of the following numbers: Samaritans – 116 123 , Childline – 0800 1111 (UK) / 1800 66 66 66 (ROI), Teenline – 1800 833 634 (ROI).