JONNY BENJAMIN MBE
In 2008, Jonny Benjamin stood on a London bridge about to take his own life, until a complete stranger came over, spoke to him and convinced him not to. Years later, Jonny began a search for that man and the subsequent #FindMike campaign captured the world's attention and became a genuine social media phenomena.
Since that day, Jonny has starred in a Channel 4 documentary about the search to find 'The Stranger on the Bridge', who [SPOILER ALERT] turned out to be called Neil. He has also published a book of his own poetry and continues to work tirelessly to promote mental health awareness as an ambassador for the Rethink Mental Illness.
Let’s start with some questions about the obvious topic, the incredible #FindMike campaign. I appreciate you weren’t in a great place at the time, but thinking back to that day when you first met the 'Stranger on the Bridge'. When so many people walked past, he (Neil) didn’t. Why do you think that was?
Firstly, living in London, a lot of us walk around in a bit of a bubble, not aware of what's going on around. It's understandable. Living in a city, especially London, can be pretty overwhelming at times! So perhaps people didn't notice me?
But I think the main reason is probably fear. I think there's a lot of fear around saying the wrong thing. Professor Green's brave and very important documentary Suicide And Me touched on this. Really there's no such thing as saying the wrong thing. I think it's actually all down to empathy, which most of us have. If you can show someone some empathy it can go a long way. Neil showed me empathy and gave me an ear and it saved my life.
#FindMike became a worldwide phenomena. How many people contacted you, and from how far afield did they come, claiming to be ‘Mike’? Did it make you more determined or did you think it was going to end in disappointment?
I always thought it would end in disappointment and not being able to find Neil, so I was completely shocked when I actually did! People came forward from all over the world saying they were "Mike". Most were genuine and had helped someone else. The funniest was someone from Iowa claiming to be Mike. He got confused with the city of Waterloo in Iowa and Waterloo Bridge in London! He seemed genuine though, I think??
How do you feel about the impact the campaign had on other peoples lives, given how much publicity it managed? (Question from @JamesFish90)
The campaign became much more about Finding "Mike", or rather Neil. We've had a few messages from people saying the campaign and documentary stopped them from suicide. I was never expecting that. But it truly is amazing and testament to stories of hope and recovery. We need more of them out there.
How do you think the perception of mental illness has changed since the #FindMike campaign and your involvement with Rethink. Do you think people look at mental health differently now?
I'd like to think it's had some sort of impact on perceptions of mental health, but there's so many people doing such great things out there and making a difference, from the anti-stigma campaign Time To Change to ambassadors like Stephen Fry. I've seen a real shift in recent years for the better, but there's still a long way to go.
Neil Laybourn (aka 'Mike') and you have become good friends since you found him. Now you’ve got to know him, what was it about him do you think, that made him stop and talk?
So many of his attributes; kindness, compassion, empathy as I mentioned. And determination. As soon as he saw me he said he was determined not to let me jump. Once Neil sets his mind to something, he always sees it through without fail.
When you and Neil get together, do you feel obligated to buy all the drinks?
He's pretty stingy, so even if he hadn't done what he did, I'd still have to buy all the drinks! Only joking! He's very generous really!
Did you ever suggest renaming the campaign, in retrospect, to #RevealNeil?
Ooh no I didn't...but I wish I had done now!
Are you fatalistic? (Question from @hubbydepressed)
I never used to be but now I am! Well, when things go my way at least.
Moving on a little. You’re very active in your opposition to the Work Capability Assessment. It’s clearly a subject you’re passionate about. Why is it so important to you?
Don't even get me started! According to the Department Of Work and Pensions, around 90 people are dying a month because of the WCA (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/aug/27/thousands-died-after-fit-for-work-assessment-dwp-figures).
Unfortunately there's been a lot of suicides related to the WCA, and certainly a lot of people's mental health has been badly affected by the system. It's just not working. A Freedom of Information request by Mind has found that the government are 3 times more likely to give people with mental health issues benefit sanctions than help them into work. I'm going to keep campaigning until there's a change.
What would be your alternative to it?
I wish the government would accept that some people cannot work, either due to mental or physical health problems and give them the help and support they need and deserve. We know that some people cheat the system, yes, but it's a small minority. Many genuinely need financial aid to get by.
For people that can and want to work they should be supported back into employment, not shoved into roles that are not right for them. Going back into work after taking time off for mental health issues is fucking hard. I've done it. I can't imagine being forced back into work. I couldn't have coped if it happened to me.
Jeremy Corbyn recently appointed a Shadow Minister for Mental Health, although she has no immediate counterpart in this Government. Why do you think that is, given the profile mental illness now has and the fact that it affects 1 in 4 people?
The current government doesn't get mental health. They promised parity of esteem between mental and physical health a few years ago. Things have got worse since that time. The cuts to services, beds, staff etc show cleared that the government doesn't get it and actually i don't know if they want to. We've got to keep on fighting till they do!
Postcard Productions, the company you work with, recently secured funding for a play around suicide awareness. What can you tell us about it and the plans going forward? Come on Jonny, spill the beans.
Not much I'm afraid! It's at its very early stages! But it's exciting. It will hopefully bring awareness around suicide to a new audience and we want it to tour nationally eventually!
While we’re on a creative tip, you've had a book of poetry (Pill After Pill) published. How do you use poetry to help you through the dark times?
Writing poetry was the only way I could express myself when I was first diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder aged 20 and admitted to hospital. I wouldn't talk, only write. My thoughts and feelings came out in rhythms and rhymes, so I started writing poetry. I'm always amazed by the creativity of people affected by mental health issues. There's a definite link there.
A few quick fire questions….
When you’re feeling low, which of these would you always turn to make you feel better (and why)….
A Pixar movie like Wall-E or Up! They always take me to a very happy, child-like place. I recently saw Inside Out at the cinema. Wow. Everyone reading this needs to watch that film. You'll know why when you see it!
I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free by Nina Simone. In the first half of the song she sings about entrapment and pain, but the second half is so euphoric. It always lifts my spirits.
No album in particular, but I have an album I made called Invictus with songs that uplift and inspire me. It contains songs like Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, Ellie Goulding's Lights and Aretha Franklin's version of That's Life. A real mix! I suggest everyone create their own mixtape like this!
Any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm because it always makes me laugh or any of David Attenborough's nature documentaries. There's something healing about nature for me.
What technique do you find works best when you’re unwell?
Going back to the techniques that have worked before. I've been feeling a bit shit the past week or two. It always seems to happen in October! Perhaps it's the seasons changing? But when it happens, I go back to the CBT techniques I learnt (I know CBT doesn't work for everyone, but it's certainly helped me) and increase my practice of mindfulness. I journal a lot more and just generally try to slow down.
I went for a hike last weekend. It was pissing down with rain but it was great and I felt so much better from it. Getting out of the city and into nature always provides some relief. I've also gone back to writing 5 positive things I liked about myself after each day. It may sound a bit lame, but it helps get me out of the self-loathing mode I seem to fall into when my symptoms rear their ugly head!
Nature or nurture? (Question from @hubbydepressed)
That's another good question from @hubbydepressed! I'd say a mixture of both from my perspective! But I'm probably wrong!
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
Where do I start? I think I'd tell myself not to worry and stress so much about my A-levels. They caused me a great deal of anxiety as I think they do for many. Why they put young people through it I'll never understand!!
I'd tell myself to talk and open up. And that I should feel no shame and embarrassment about the thoughts and feelings I was having. Also that I am just human and I'm not crazy as I kept telling myself I was! There's so many things I'd want to say but most of all I would tell myself that I'm not stuck in the deep, dark tunnel I thought I was in forever and that it will get better.
First and last gig you went to?
First gig was probably Amy Winehouse. This was quite a few years ago and she was on top form. It was a small, intimate gig and the best live music I've ever seen. I became a big fan after that and was shattered by her passing. She was so misunderstood.
My last gig was Florence + The Machine which was pretty epic. I bumped into Florence Welch this summer in London and we had a lovely chat which touched on mental health. Sadly, her Grandmother had bipolar and took her own life when Florence was a teenager.
Who was your role model as a child?
Queen Elizabeth I. I was obsessed with her growing up. There was something about her strength of character that I felt I was lacking which inspired me.
Admit it. What's your guilty pleasure?
Chocolate and lots of it!
Most embarrassing song in your library?
I have many many embarrassing songs. The first album I ever bought was the Spice Girls first album. I don't listen to it anymore (much!)
Favourite flavour of crisps?
Walkers BBQ! They are possibly bringing them back! I think you can vote for them! Please vote for them everyone!
If you could choose any, what would be your super power be? (Question from @hubbydepressed)
To get everyone sleeping rough on the streets around the world into a bed, or more than that, into an actual home. Everyone should have a roof over their heads. Civilisation has advanced so much and we can now do things like fly all the way to the moon but we can't even provide basic shelter for our society. It makes no sense.
Men are notoriously reluctant to open up about themselves, particular their mental health, but you do it through your YouTube channel. Over half a million people have watched your ‘vlogs’. What is it about that medium you like so much and what advice can you give to someone who might want to start recording their thoughts?
YouTube was an outlet for me when I first opened up about my mental health. I wanted to talk about my experiences, but I also wanted to connect to others. I feel I'm better at vlogging than blogging and so I continued making vlogs as I became more comfortable and confident making them and my audience grew.
In terms of advice, I would say to just go for it. The beauty of making vlogs is that if you don't like it, you can delete it and do it again. I try and have a subject to focus on and a few key points I want to touch on. I used to be nervous at first about making them and posting them up for the world to see. But to know you've touched just one person who watches it that perhaps shares the same experience as you - it makes it all worth it.
Finally, complete this sentence. It’s important to talk about male mental health because…….
The suicide rate in males is rising and is now at its highest for nearly 15 years, whilst it has become the biggest killer of men under 50. If that's not reason enough to talk about men's mental health then I don't know what is!
We need to redefine what it is to be "macho" and let men know it's ok to be vulnerable or to struggle and that there is support out there. We have to start helping men to open up. We're losing 13 of them a day in this country to suicide and we need to do something about this right now.