Jonny Benjamin looks healthy, young, well dressed. But appearances can be deceptive, a truth that the 32-year-old discovered all too well when his long-masked inner demons cornered him in 2008, resulting in him trying to take his own life.
He was sat on Waterloo Bridge, thinking about jumping when he was talked down by a passing stranger, who he nicknamed ‘Mike’. In January 2014 Jonny launched a social media campaign to track down his good Samaritan, something which evolved into a Channel 4 documentary, ‘The Stranger on the Bridge’.
Five years on, Jonny’s charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma is dedicated to helping other people battle their own demons using something he found effective himself: mindfulness. (He’s even running A Mindful Moment event with ClassDojo.) RSNG caught up with Jonny to ask about his journey so far, the power of mindfulness, and why so many men struggle to ask for help.
RSNG You’ve been campaigning for mental health for years – would you say that more men, in particular, are having a tough mental time at the moment?
JONNY BENJAMIN ‘Well, I don’t know if it is more of a tough mental time but definitely for them it can feel like it – definitely compared to women, the stats have showed this. Men are much less likely to go to their GP, men are much more likely to drop out of the mental health services provided.’
‘So, I think so, yes, and it all comes back to this kind of macho culture that we have, but I do believe it’s getting a little bit better. I speak to so many guys who still don’t feel that they can talk about it. They feel that it is a weakness to struggle, to be vulnerable, to open up. Whereas women in general feel more comfortable, feel less vulnerable, can open up and talk about issues.’
‘With this macho culture, I think that it is going to take a while for things to change. When I grew up, I used to cry a lot and get emotional and people used to say to me: “Men don’t cry, come on man up now.” But I suppose that is just part of our language and how we talk in society when we see boys or men crying and I think that that is something which needs to change, but the tide is turning, gradually.’
‘It makes me incredibly sad the amount of people that I have spoken to who have lost their husbands, sons, fathers to suicide and they had no idea that they were struggling, because these guys managed to keep their issues well hidden.’
RSNG What would you say is the most important thing that someone suffering needs to do to help themselves, or do to enable others to help them?
JB ‘At the heart of this is being brave enough to talk and, from the other side, having the patience and compassion to sit there and listen. That is how problems are solved and it all starts from communication… from a connection.’
RSNG Was it that connection with Neil, your ‘stranger on the bridge’, that stopped you from jumping from the bridge that day?
JB ‘To be honest, there was something about Neil. You know that I was in the psychiatric hospital for a few months before I ran away to the bridge. It was very clinical – obviously it was clinical – and I was in a really bad place. I was encouraged to talk in the hospital and when I said I was suicidal, I was immediately put back into a ward with a suicide watch where everything is taken away from you and you’re under surveillance 24/7.’
‘But when they ask you to talk about things, they don’t seem to talk back – they just sit and watch you and listen to you. It was a weird situation and I just found it too tough and I couldn’t handle it.’
‘For someone to tell me not to be embarrassed about anything just felt like a massive weight off my shoulders’
RSNG How was what Neil did different?
JB ‘He was really different in his approach and he seemed to be really invested. He said to me that he wasn’t going to walk away, and he wasn’t going to let me jump. It was also the way that he held the space and the way that he was so patient.’
‘He was so kind and very empathetic, but I think there were a couple key things that he said. The first was that he told me that there was nothing to be embarrassed about, and that was something I had never heard before. The symptoms were obviously very tough and all of the embarrassment and the stuff that was going on in my head, it was too much.’
‘For someone to tell me not to be embarrassed about anything was something that just felt like a massive weight off my shoulders. He also said to me, almost kind of a matter of fact: “Mate, you’ll get better. You’ll be alright.” I know that sounds so sort of simplistic, but that for me was massive… because I didn’t believe that I was going to get better.’
‘My psychiatrist in the hospital didn’t know what was going to happen and he didn’t know if I was going to get better. There was no kind of positivity and no hope. But this guy, Neil is so positive, and he always has this kind of hope and I think that was key and eventually he convinced me to come off the edge and go for a cup of coffee.’
‘I think maybe him being a young guy, maybe… I don’t know. But I felt that I could talk to this guy – he got it and he understood.’
RSNG You’ve used mental coping mechanisms since then – what has been the benefit of mindfulness and how do you practise it?
JB ‘For me, mindfulness just calms everything and helps me get back in touch with my body and the present moment. It helps for me when I am in states of paranoia, for example. Sometimes it doesn’t work but it’s by far the best solution I have ever had.’
RSNG How did you discover it?
JB ‘It was when I was first in the hospital at the age of 20. One day, one of the nurses took me to one side and said that I should really try mindfulness and I was kind of like: “I think it’s more for hippies with candles and things like that. It’s not for me.”’
‘Then, she recommended an audiobook called Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is like a mindfulness guru. Anyway, I bought this CD and it lay on my shelf for years because in my early 20s I was in denial, I didn’t want to deal with it – I wasn’t in a good place.’
‘So, a number of years later, I was sick of not talking and I thought: “I’ll put this CD on and see what happens…” and it was amazing. I did about 10 minutes of meditating and taking notice of my breath and really tuning into my senses, as well as listening to the sounds around me.’
‘It was 10 minutes that I will never forget. I got up from where I had been laying and it was like I had a whole new peace of mind. There wasn’t any noise in my head for the first time ever, it was just really quiet, and I could hear the birds singing outside. I could just feel nothing but peace and I was really still.’
‘Nowadays I use an app which is called Insight Timer and I love it because it’s got so many meditations, relaxations – you have a section for anxiety, one for sleep. Because, there isn’t just meditation, there are other ways of achieving a peaceful state. You can use Yoga – which I do – and also for me, even just walking.’
‘Sometimes I sit down and try to meditate but I can’t, my head is just too busy, way too busy. So instead, I will go and do a walking meditation and I am tuning into my footsteps and everything that I am seeing, all of my sense – what I am hearing, what I am smelling.’
RSNG Do you think social media and connected culture in general has a link to mental health outcomes?
JB ‘Absolutely. It is just so frustrating, and you only have to look at the suicide rates for men under the age of 45 years old, to tell you that there is an issue with this kind of thing. Telling people to “…just deal with it,” that’s not going to help, is it? That kind of reaction is going to make them feel even more repressed and unable to talk about it. It’s just really frustrating.’
RSNG What kind of unhelpful things have you heard being said?
JB ‘I mean Piers Morgan has said some things in the past where, for example, he criticised someone who has PTSD and he said that is only for people who have come back from fighting in a war. But people can suffer from PTSD after suffering any sort of trauma and if you put things out there like that, these myths, they can be really damaging for people and their families and friends.’
‘I had a bit of a bust-up with him about five years ago where he seemed to be liking schizophrenia to violence. It was around the time that Nelson Mandela had passed away and there was a guy doing sign language on the TV coverage of Mandela’s funeral and he was signing incorrect things. It turned out that he was suffering from schizophrenia and he was really ill at that time and was suffering from psychosis.’
‘Piers then put this tweet out saying that people with schizophrenia and psychosis can be dangerous and violent and how irresponsible was it that he was allowed to be so close to the world leaders. So, I replied to him asking what the hell he meant by that and he got back to me saying that people with schizophrenia are more likely to be violent.’
‘That is completely untrue. People with schizophrenia are actually more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it and then there is this myth in the media that people with schizophrenia are dangerous, they’re violent and he is just pushing that myth out there even more. That’s the thing which is dangerous.’
‘I just wish that people would take a bit more responsibility and have more empathy. I think now that when I read things like that, we need more and more people to stand up and tell them that it’s not right. There is a very strong community of supporters online for mental health and more and more young people are supporting charities who help with mental health.’
‘Making some time for yourself is as important as brushing your teeth – put it in the diary and stick to it’
RSNG Do you have three tips for those looking to look after their mental health, as a preventative measure?
JB ‘When I go and do these talks, I talk about what we call ‘Self Care’. Often we don't put a date in our diaries for that, but we will make a note to fix up the garden at the weekend or do those bits of admin. We usually do all those types of things but we neglect our mental health.’
‘In terms of our physical health, we do brush our teeth mostly twice a day and that's in the schedule. I know myself, I never used to put anything in the week, but now I do and for example I will put Wednesday night in for myself and maybe do some yoga or mindfulness or even go to the cinema. It is as important as brushing your teeth, making some time for yourself. Putting it in the diary and then sticking to it.’
‘The second thing is – and this is especially important when talking to kids – being careful of how you use technology and social media. For me personally, something I did recently was turn off all of the red notifications that I have on my iPhone. For example, when I went back into them I would have about 300 messages waiting to be read on WhatsApp.’
‘Someone said to me that red is a warning sign for the brain and when your brain is constantly seeing that on your iPhone, it's just constantly sending you that signal. It has made me feel less stressed, to be honest. I know that there’s stuff just waiting for me, but I don’t know how many and I don’t care.’
‘So, there are some little things that you can do with technology and social media to help your mental health. Not even taking your phone into the bedroom is another one. Things like that do improve your mental health. That's a big thing for kids nowadays, because they are engrossed in technology and social media and that's something that does worry me.’
‘I guess the third thing would be that you are finding ways to talk about your mental health. Again, if we think about our physical health and we have a bad back or a cold, we all have our groups of friends who complain about their back or feeling ill. But when it comes to our mental health not many people who’ll just come out and say that they have been feeling really anxious or really low recently. That's a shame; we can change it.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch the story of how a stranger’s kindness saved Jonny Benjamin’s life.
A Mindful Moment is being organised by ClassDojo and students in the UK will be raising money for new charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma. The global project starts at 11am UK time. ClassDojo is the world’s most-widely used communication app for primary schools and the organiser of the event is hoping that tens of millions of children will take part.
Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations.