This pic: The first of many meetings between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Jonny and Neil, in 2016. Below: Jonny Benjamin in Autumn 2018 © Happiful /Joseph Sinclair

Crossing the Bridge

3rd May 2019

With Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 on the horizon (13-19 May), Joy Sable talks to local mental health activist Jonny Benjamin about his own experiences and about how his life was changed by a passing stranger…

On a cold morning in January 2008, hundreds of people were walking across Waterloo Bridge, on their way to work. Jonny Benjamin was sitting on the edge of the bridge, ready to end his life. Were the commuters all too busy to notice, or did they deliberately choose to ignore a person in obvious distress? Only one person stopped. He approached Jonny and, with a few words of kindness, gave him the one thing he needed most: hope.

Six years on from that life-changing moment, Jonny began a search via Twitter and Facebook to locate the stranger who had saved his life. Jonny’s quest to find his saviour went viral, and news organisations across the world picked up his remarkable story. The campaign – called ‘Find Mike’ (Jonny mistakenly thought this was the man’s name) – produced several false leads, but Jonny eventually found ‘Mike’… who turned out to be Neil Laybourn. Today, the two men work together promoting positive mental health. In the Queen’s 2017 New Year Honours List, Jonny was awarded an MBE for his services to mental health and suicide prevention. It is a remarkable highlight in a life which has been, in Jonny’s words, “an extraordinary journey”.

Jonny grew up in Stanmore and had what he calls “a typical childhood” with his mum and dad and older brother. But things were not quite right from early on. “My parents first took me to a child psychologist when I was about four,” he says. “I wasn’t sleeping properly, I was seeing and hearing things that weren’t there.”

Things became more difficult when he went to senior school. “I found it difficult to fit in, in such a big school. I found it tough and things got harder as I went through my teenage years.”

He didn’t talk about what was going on. “I didn’t know how to, I was really embarrassed,” he recalls. He is quick to note that things are very different now, and schools are much more aware of the need to provide support for children who are struggling.

Life did not get better for Jonny after leaving school. “I was 20 when I was put into a psychiatric hospital and that’s when I was given my diagnosis – schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. It was a massive shock to me and my family. The hospital was a dreadful place and there was a lack of hope. No one talked about recovery and getting better; everyone around me was very unwell.”

Unable to break out of this cycle of despair, Jonny ran away from the hospital and decided to kill himself. (Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.) At that point, his guardian angel – in the guise of Neil Laybourn – stepped in.

“That was a massive turning point. The guy was just very positive and told me I could and would get better. I just hadn’t had that message before. In the hospital, people weren’t sure, but this guy had real positivity and conviction that I was going to get better. That’s all I needed to hear. We built up a connection and for the first time I felt able to talk to someone, to be open and not be embarrassed. He listened in a way I hadn’t been listened to.”

Eventually Neil convinced Jonny to go for a coffee. “He helped me back to the pavement and the police were waiting. I was sectioned and eventually taken back to the hospital I had run away from. I definitely felt different on the way back, because I had a little bit of hope.”

It took a few years for Jonny to recover enough to be in a position to look for his anonymous saviour. “I had to get myself back on track and accept what was going on, to get rid of the embarrassment and the shame. That’s when I decided to find this guy. His wife saw my post on Facebook and if it wasn’t for Facebook, we wouldn’t be reunited. This is where it can be used for good.”

Unfortunately, of course, social media is not always used in a positive way. This year, Mental Health Awareness Week focuses on the theme of Body Image. The appalling death of 14-year old Molly Russell, after she saw images of self-harm on Instagram, caused an outrage and highlighted the need for better monitoring of all forms of social media.

Jonny is deeply concerned. “I believe that social media platforms, and the media in general, need to take much more responsibility for the content that young people are being constantly exposed to,” he says. “However, on a more positive note, I am noticing a growing trend on social media for ‘body positivity’… a movement being led by mental health campaigners Bryony Gordon and Natasha Devon MBE. They aim to show more realistic representations of body image on platforms such as Instagram, which is something that is much needed.” 

Jonny would like to see more education on how best to use social media in schools, even in workplaces. “I know many adults who have a very complex relationship with social media. Once again it is the responsibility of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to ensure this is happening. I’ve met with both of these organisations on several occasions and I’m pleased that they are realising their impact, but I do not believe they are acting fast enough to deal with the growing pressures social media is placing on society. Social media can be a really good tool for people to express themselves, and share their thoughts and feelings, but when it’s not managed in the right way, I think it can be quite damaging.”

Jonny’s eventual reunion with Neil blossomed into friendship, which spurred Neil on to quit his job as a personal trainer and work in mental health instead.

“We thought we could make a difference – two young guys talking about this,” says Jonny. “We started going into schools and prisons to share our stories and try to get other people to talk as well. My big focus is young people, because we know that young people don’t get the help and support they need, and if we can get to them early enough, we can make a big difference.”

Together with Neil, Jonny has launched a charity called Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma, which seeks to break down the walls surrounding young people’s mental health issues. “It’s really tough for families when they have a loved one diagnosed, so it gives support to everyone. There’s not enough support, and there have been funding cuts, so we want to put that support in place early, instead of people having to wait for help, which is what is happening now.”

Last year Jonny’s memoir, The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Despair to Hope, was published in hardback (the paperback version comes out this month). Next year will see his second publication, entitled The Book of Hope, which he says “contains all kinds of positive quotes and people sharing their experiences, talking about recovery and hope”.

Jonny’s willingness to speak so openly about his problems, and his campaigning for mental health issues led to that trip to Buckingham Palace a couple of years ago. “That was completely out of the blue. It was a really special day, not just for me, for my family.” He and Neil have also met privately with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who are passionate about mental health issues. “We had to pinch ourselves,” says Jonny. “Both of them were just so down to earth. They really care about this subject. We’ve met them a few times now and it all came from that one conversation on the bridge.”

If there is one thing that Jonny wants to stress, it is that you can learn to live with mental illness, and that there is no shame in it. “Don’t be embarrassed – and listening is just as important as talking.”

Listening and being there with some kind words was just what Neil did. “I’m incredibly lucky,” says Jonny. “He was the right guy in the right place. It could have been very different.”

Find Your Local