IGB interviews Jonny Benjamin
In January 2014 IGB Ambassador and mental health advocate Jonny Benjamin launched a social media campaign called #FindMike to help track down the stranger who talked him out of jumping off Waterloo Bridge in 2008. The Campaign went viral and culminated in the Channel 4 Documentary “Stranger on the Bridge,” documenting Jonny’s search for the stranger that saved him.
IGB: The Channel 4 film “The Stranger on the Bridge” documents your campaign to #findmike, who in 2008 stopped you from jumping off Waterloo Bridge. When you found Mike (Neal as it turned out), you told him: “It was you saying to me you can get through it… My whole perspective changed and I was like this stranger I’ve never even met who doesn’t know anything about me is telling me I’ll be ok and I can get through it…just giving me the time of day and saying to me there’s another way and it can get better. Honestly, from that day, it restored my faith in humanity. I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t stop.” If you were to meet someone on the bridge right now about to jump off, or anyone about to do self-harm, what would you say to them?
Jonny: I would tell them that I have been in their shoes and I know how it feels, but most importantly, that I’ve been able to overcome it. The message of hope and recovery is so important. To know that someone else has been there and that “it gets brighter” can make all the difference when you’re struggling and can’t see a way out.
IGB: If you were “Mike” what would you have told Jonny that day?
Jonny: I wouldn’t have changed a thing about what [he] said to me. His words were so powerful, but they were also very simple and human.
IGB: You’ve come a long way since 2008 when you attempted to take your own life. You said the #findmike campaign was the beginning “of the start of something.” What was it the start of for you?
Jonny: It has opened up lots of opportunities to work with various people and organizations, from the government to the police, to tackle the taboo that is suicide. I now go into schools, hospitals, prisons, businesses etc. to talk about mental health and try to spread the message that It Gets Brighter! It’s such a privilege to be able to talk to people and hear about their experiences. We all learn from each other.
IGB: You’ve been experiencing symptoms of schizoaffective disorder since the age of ten, without knowing this was its name. What does it mean to have a mental illness for you?
Jonny: It means that life is more interesting that’s for sure! For me, it makes the day- to- day very unpredictable, and extremely challenging at times. But it’s also given me a lot of insight and sensitivity, which I think of as a positive thing.
IGB: Would you say you are now recovered? How would you define recovery? What role did therapy play in your recovery?
Jonny: I would say that I recovered from the particular episode I had, which led me to the bridge. But I am not cured and I doubt I ever will be. I’ve gone through relapses, though now I’ve come to terms with it, and there has been great freedom in acceptance.
IGB: You are now involved in quite a few campaigns to combat stigma around mental health. What would you say is your driving force?
Jonny: My driving force is other people. I get many messages from people who are struggling, often in silence, and I know how isolating and incredibly tough it is. There’s so much I want to achieve. A world without stigma and discrimination is one of them. And a health service where mental health is funded properly and people are given the help and support they need, which isn’t happening at the moment.
One day we will hopefully see something like OCD or bipolar as no different to a physical health problem like diabetes. We’ve got some way to go, but I hope I’m here to see that day.
IGB: In one of your poems, you describe it as being “a prisoner in my own panic room,” saying “I’ll take isolation over social dread.” How did you overcome that social dread and what advice would you give others facing the same social anxiety?
Jonny: Social anxiety for me is the feeling of being trapped. When I have depression I feel I am able to hide it (not that that’s a good thing), but when social anxiety takes hold it feels glaringly obvious and I will hide away. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness have helped to combat the social anxiety. CBT should be available through your doctor and I would recommend the book Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World as a beginner’s guide to mindfulness. Going to support groups with others who suffer from social anxiety has also been a massive help and a relief.
IGB: Through your struggle with mental illness, what’s the most inspiring advice you’d been given that may have changed your perspective on things?
Jonny: I’ve been given many pearls of wisdom. I am a particular fan of positive quotes/stories. Some of my favorite quotes are:
“Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” Japanese Proverb
“The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.” C.C Scott
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” Albert Camus
In terms of positive, inspiring stories I would read something by Mitch Albom, particularly Tuesdays with Morrie.
IGB: If you could change one way in which people perceive mental illness what would it be?
Jonny: That having a mental illness limits or restricts people. I felt like I was given a life sentence when I received my diagnosis. It seemed like I lost all purpose. So now when I give my talks I try to remind people that we all have a purpose, even when we’re in the grip of dark, difficult periods and can’t get up out of bed for example. Anything and everything is still possible even when you’re in that place.