Four years ago Jonny Benjamin went viral with his online #FindMike campaign to seek out the stranger who talked him out of jumping off Waterloo Bridge.
The man had found Benjamin standing on the bridge in his early 20s, when he had been at rock bottom. He’d had a breakdown and was diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression.
Since a young age, he’d felt hopeless and had heard voices, as well as experiencing The Truman Show delusion, thinking he was the star of a reality TV show. He’d fled from hospital where he was sectioned.
“I had no hope, no belief that I could recover,” Benjamin says. “I felt embarrassed, ashamed. I stopped taking my medication and I didn’t want help. I didn’t want therapy.”
Despite the struggles, he would never have talked about what he was going through. Yet now, his daily life involves doing just that. As a full-time mental health campaigner, he speaks about his suicide attempt in schools, works with the NHS and charities, and lobbies the government to improve funding and education around mental health.
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He tells his story over and over again, often with the passerby who saved his life that day. Benjamin nicknamed him Mike for his campaign, but he turned out to be called Neil Laybourn, a personal trainer who now works with Benjamin full time on mental health projects. Together they launched Thinkwell, a series of workshops for schools and businesses, based on extracts of a documentary about their story.
HuffPost interviewed Benjamin two years ago for our Young Minds Matter series, guest edited by the Duchess of Cambridge, which led to him meeting with Prince William on that same bridge he nearly jumped from.
Since then, he’s travelled internationally, worked with the young royals on mental health awareness campaigns, been given an MBE, and has now written a book that is launched this week.
Speaking ahead of the publication day, Benjamin, now 31, recalls how his diagnosis aged 20 felt like a “life sentence”, because of the stigma attached to schizophrenia. He said he now sees that stigma echoed in the British media’s coverage of Ant McPartlin’s recent alcohol issues.
Addiction carries a “massive” stigma, he says, “because underlying most addiction is a mental health issue”. He compares reporting of McPartlin’s court case to that of Amy Winehouse when she was suffering with drink and drug issues before her death.
“The media’s treatment of Amy – and most people are in agreement with this – was pretty awful. They way they hounded her, even though it was clear she was struggling. They still persisted in hounding her and painted her in a negative light.
“I just see the same things happening with Ant, and other people who have addictions. But particularly Ant because he’s such a public face.”
He says the British media “is very unforgiving”, and described a lack of sympathy on social media. “I’m not saying what he did with the accident wasn’t wrong, but I feel like the media has… kind of written him off.
“He’s been to court and he’s had his punishment handed to him, and he’s obviously struggling.”
“If someone had a heart attack, or cancer, the media would be a bit kinder.”
Benjamin says that he has relapsed several times since that day on the bridge, including a psychotic episode last year when he was walking in London with Laybourn. He began thinking he was on The Truman Show again, and accusing Laybourn of being an actor. “People started stopping and looking, there was even one guy who started laughing, I’ll always remember that. But Neil was great, he was very calm and grounded. He didn’t react and just said ‘OK, let’s get you somewhere safe’.”
The personal trainer – who has now given up his old job to work full-time on mental health initiatives - has become a friend as well as a colleague. “Neil is very self-assured,” says Benjamin. “I think I’m quite an anxious person and he’s got this amazing confidence and boldness. I think that’s why he came up to me on the bridge that day. I take a lot from that.”
Their relationship has shifted over the years: “At the beginning, when we were reunited, our time was spent going out and getting drunk – we have a shared love of karaoke. Then work took over. It’s been so draining for both of us, so we’re trying to spend more time doing things socially together too.”
Talking about his past trauma so regularly can get difficult, Benjamin admits. “Particularly, say, during a mental health awareness week, when we’ll be talking every day. There are times when I go on stage and I’m like ‘I can’t do this today’. I find it really difficult to revisit the past and have to journey through it all.”
But his book, The Stranger on the Bridge, delves into many of his personal difficulties, using diary extracts that he wrote from age 12. “It was a good outlet for me, I wrote in it every day until my early 20s.”
Prince William has written the forward, saying that Benjamin provides “an extraordinary example to us all” and praising his “ability to show that a mental health diagnosis should not put limitations upon anyone”.
This week it was revealed that the rates of people in the UK being sectioned are up by almost 50% in a decade due to the lack of provision for care in the community and pressure on beds.
Benjamin has been working to improve mental health facilities in prisons, where he says cuts to funding for clinicians and therapists, as well as services like reading facilities, has made record levels of suicide worse. “There’s more overcrowding, more drug taking, a lot more anger, and a lot more broken relationships with staff. If there are riots, prisoners get put in isolation, which is not good for mental health.”
What’s needed is more compassion and understanding, he says, recalling one man with schizophrenia that he met at HMP Parc near Bridgend in Wales. He was the same age as Benjamin and was constantly fighting. “He went on hunger strike because he believed that he was being poisoned and that the staff were putting stuff in his food.” Prison staff took the step of taking him into the kitchens to show him how food was prepared. “Just that simple act changed him because he saw what was going on, and built a relationship with the staff. It sounds really simple, but he’s reformed.”
Laybourn and Benjamin are about to launch their own foundation charity, which will use donations from corporate companies to fund mental health education in schools and the youth justice system. They are hoping their Thinkwell workshops - which have reached 3,000 secondary school children so far - will be launched in primary schools for the first time.
He hopes the work will help to shift the perception of mental illness. “I’m in a really different place now. Ten years ago, I couldn’t even say the word mental illness or mental health. But ten years later this is what I do, this is my life.”
The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Despair to Hope by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Britt Pfluger is published by Bluebird, priced at £16.99 hardback.