[Trigger warning: this piece covers issues around suicide]
On a freezing morning in January 2008, Jonny Benjamin went to Waterloo Bridge to end his life, after running away from the hospital where he was sectioned.
He prepared to jump as he stood on the edge.
"I remember feeling really, really terrified," says Jonny, who was 20 at the time and had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder a month earlier.
"I don’t know how long I’d been on there for when this person stopped and just began talking to me, asking me questions like 'What’s going on?' and 'Where are you from? Step over and we’ll just go for a coffee.'
"At first I wanted him to just go away but he was very calm and very empathetic and kind of broke my bubble of despair. I guess the real turning point was him saying: 'Look, I believe you can get better.'"
Thanks to the intervention of that concerned passerby, Jonny didn’t jump.
Jonny Benjamin tried to take his own life in 2008
In 2014, after launching a viral campaign called #FindMike, he learned the stranger’s identity. Jonny had nicknamed him 'Mike', but he was, in fact, Neil Laybourn, a 31-year-old fitness trainer from Surrey.
That lifesaving conversation on the bridge has inspired Jonny to launch a series of mental health workshops in schools to teach children that it’s OK – essential, even – to talk about their feelings.
The sessions, called ThinkWell, aim to shine a light on the fact that half of adult mental health issues begin before the age of 15.
They were developed using clips from Stranger On The Bridge, the Channel 4 documentary about his search for Neil.
"It had such a massive impact," says Jonny, now 29. "People were saying it stopped them taking their life or they had gone and got help after seeing it. We were, like, this can’t be the end. We’ve got to do more."
Now, talking energetically in The Huffington Post UK offices, Jonny seems well.
He can trace his own mental health issues back to childhood – at four he was taken to a child psychologist to help with night terrors which started when he watched the film of Roald Dahl’s BFG and refused to sleep in his own bed.
When he was ten, he started hearing a voice and began to experience the Truman Show Delusion – a belief, named after the Jim Carrey film, that he was starring in a reality TV show against his will.
"I thought everyone heard a voice, so I just thought I was normal," explains Jonny.
At first it was friendly; a kind, older man’s voice. But at 16, when Jonny was being bullied, the voice changed and began telling him what to do and threatening him and his family.
"It became the devil. I felt controlled by it, it was constantly criticising," he recalls.
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He experienced the voices and delusion for ten years, without telling a soul. He was only diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder – a condition with features of schizophrenia and depression – after a psychotic episode while he was at university led to him screaming and shouting in the middle of a dual carriageway.
His family and friends were shocked: they had no idea what he had been going through. "I was terrified of telling anyone, in case they thought I was bad, or evil, or wrong," Jonny says.
He now gives regular talks to children, businesses and media to raise awareness of mental health issues so other young people don’t have to go through what he did.
"I really suffered, particularly in my mid teens onwards, really suffered in silence because I was scared and because I was embarrassed," he says.
He has seen evidence at firsthand of the discrimination that nine in ten children with mental health problems experience.
"I spoke to a group of scouts and they were about ten or 11," he says. "I asked who would go and get help if they had a pain in their stomach. Everyone said yes, they would. "I asked who would go and talk to someone, or get help, if they felt really, really unhappy or very anxious and only about a third or a quarter put their hand up. I asked why and they said: 'We’re scared of what people will think of us.'"
Jonny's hunt for 'Mike' went viral until he found the man who had helped him
There’s more worry and pressure on children than ever and it is starting younger, he believes.
"I used to be a child minder and I was looking after this boy who was five," Jonny recalls. "Out of nowhere he pulled his top up and said, 'I’m getting really fat.' I was so shocked that a five-year-old could worry about his body image in such a way.
"My niece gets a lot of homework it’s causing her stress and she’s five."
His workshops aim to teach young people about mental health, how to get help and to share their feelings, using drawing, games and talking.
Children are asked how they think Jonny was feeling at different points during the documentary clips.
A crucial element is the trained therapist who sits in a ThinkWell space next door where any child can go for a private conversation.
The initiative was launched in January on the eighth anniversary of that day on the bridge, and so far 500 children have seen his story.
"Some of the responses are amazing," he says. "I’ve show the film to a lot of businesses and offices but young people just say what they think. They are so interested and open to learning about it.
"They ask 'Why did you feel like this? Tell me what it’s like hearing a voice? What was it like to feel suicidal, what was it like to be on the edge of that bridge?' Questions that are quite personal but I don’t mind answering them."
Jonny returning to Waterloo Bridge for the documentary Stranger On The Bridge
Reflecting his belief in the early intervention he never had, a version of the workshops for younger children will be tested this year.
It may not use clips from Stranger On The Bridge, given its focus on suicide, but will incorporate activities such as the children writing a letter to themselves about how they feel before it's posted to them two months later.
The board game Buckaroo, where players place more and more items on a plastic mule before it bucks, is used to show that letting things build up can lead to someone kicking out.
Although he’s modest about his influence, Jonny recognises the importance of sharing his story.
"When it comes to physical health, a lot of people share their stories like 'I had cancer', 'I beat cancer' but when it comes to mental health there’s still that stigma. People are afraid to say 'I’ve had depression or OCD.'"
He still hears the voices from time to time, when he’s stressed – and becomes visibly agitated when he talks about it.
"The voice will say 'Jonny you’ve got to do this or your dad will die.' I recognise it now and I don’t do what it says, even though it’s tempting because I was so used to doing it," he says.
The dangers of isolated young people who struggle to share their emotions are well-documented in cases of young people falling victim to radicalisation or in school shootings in the US. "These are kids going into their schools," says Jonny.
Schools have to pay to hold a ThinkWell session but Jonny and his partner, Pixel Learning, are trying to get funding to make them free.
He’s calling for mental health lessons to be made compulsory in schools – the topic is covered briefly in personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) lessons but the subject is not compulsory.
Naturally, Jonny hopes that ThinkWell will reach all schools in Britain soon but says: "I want more than that. It can’t just be one PSHE lesson and that’s it."
"Young people often study Romeo and Juliet in schools and the two of them take their own lives. I remember learning about it and you don’t talk about it – it’s just like: 'Oh, you know, they killed themselves.'
"In my dream school there would be mindfulness in the mornings, in form time; talking about how you are feeling. In science; learning about the brain and how it works and why these things happen. In history; learning about people who had mental health issues.
"We should make it more than just the one lesson. It should be across the whole curriculum so it becomes a normal thing just like physical health.
"The more we expose young people to it, the easier they will find it to talk about it."
Jonny has met community and social care minister Alistair Burt and has been in discussions with education and childcare minister Sam Gyimah.
"I think they are open to it and really engaged," he says. "I hope that this develops and sooner rather than later."
Young Minds Matter is a new series designed to lead the conversation with children about mental and emotional health, so youngsters feel loved, valued and understood. Launched with Her Royal Highness, The Duchess of Cambridge, as guest editor, we will discuss problems, causes and most importantly solutions to the stigma surrounding the UK’s mental health crisis among children. To blog on the site as part of Young Minds Matter email email@example.com
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Get Connected is a free advice service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
Photography by Elliot Wagland
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