Mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin is known for his book and documentary film, The Stranger on the Bridge, which aims to end the stigma around talking about mental health, suicidal thoughts and schizoaffective disorder.
When his campaign to find the man who stopped him from taking his own life went viral, Jonny became a spearhead in lifting the lid on mental health struggles.
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Taking part in HELLO!’s Mental Health Digital Issue guest-edited by Scarlett Moffatt, public speaker Jonny shares his own journey with depression as he reflects on the work done by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
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“Prince William has been amazing, he’s been so supportive and Catherine too,” he shared. “They are so supportive and kind, they really care about mental health. Neil [Laybourn] and I were really lucky to have a meeting with him back in 2016.
“We just sat down with them, and saw how passionate they were and they are about mental health and suicide prevention and how much they want to do. Prince William has just been really incredibly supportive. So we’re really, really grateful.”
Prince William and Kate with Jonny and Neil back in 2016
Over the years, there’s no denying how open Prince William and Kate have been surrounding the conversation about mental health and their aim to destigmatise it.
The royals met with Jonny and Neil in 2016, a year before the author was awarded an MBE for his services to mental health. “I was so nervous and I think Neil was nervous too,” recalled Jonny. “But it was so relaxed and informal. When we shook their hands, they were like, ‘Just call us by our names.’ I didn’t know how to address them.”
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Once the cameras had left, Jonny revealed how “it just felt like talking to friends”. He said: “They were so relaxed and open. Again, just really passionate for mental health. With William it was particularly with men and Catherine with young people.
“It feels like one of their life’s missions in their career is really around mental health and suicide prevention, which is great and which is what is needed.”
Asked if the royal couple are doing enough, Jonny said: “Yes, it’s so important. It’s so needed particularly with the pandemic and the lockdowns and with everything that’s going on in the world at the moment.
“There’s a lot of people struggling. We need these sort of role models and there’s loads of them now, which is amazing.” Jonny believes that the country has come a long way to end discrimination against mental health.
“I think it’s amazing that in just the last two years, we’ve come such a long way, particularly in the UK,” he added. “We’ve come such a long way because of the amount of people that are sharing and opening up.”
The author received his MBE in 2017
In 2008, Jonny almost took his own life when he was 20 years old. He found himself standing on the edge of Waterloo Bridge in London, prepared to jump. A stranger named ‘Mike’, whose actual name is Neil Laybourn, stopped to talk to him and convinced him to climb back to safety.
Speaking about the beginning of his journey, Jonny shared: “I guess it started when I was really young. My parents took me to a psychologist when I was five when we knew that something maybe wasn’t quite right.”
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He added: “At school, I had depression, but I didn’t know it was depression at the time. I tried to get help but I couldn’t really get the help that I needed. So I just sort of tried to push it away, tried to pretend it wasn’t there.”
It wasn’t until Jonny went to university that things became even more serious. “When I was 20, I was put into a hospital and I was diagnosed with something called schizoaffective disorder which is like schizophrenia and bipolar,” he explained. “I felt like that was the end for me when I got that diagnosis.
“I ran away from the hospital and ended up on the edge of a bridge. I was in a horrendous place, but thankfully, there was this stranger that was walking past and he came and stood next to me and started to have this conversation with me.”
The Book of Hope, £10.99, Amazon
On building his trust with Neil, Jonny explained: “There was just something about this guy that was really kind, calm and positive. I started to build this trust with him and he eventually convinced me to come off the edge.
“We were going to go for a coffee, but we didn’t get the chance because someone called the police and I got taken away and the stranger had to go the other way. That was the start of a really long journey to finally start talking, getting therapy and taking medication.”
Jonny then went on a mission to find this stranger with a viral campaign – the pair found each other on Facebook and their reunion was captured in their Channel 4 documentary.
After his search to find Neil came to an end, the two men formed an unbreakable bond and have since set up a charity called Beyond, have run marathons and speak to audiences across the world.
“The journey still continues. We work together, we give talks, we share our story and set up the charity, Beyond, which is a youth mental health charity. I’ve also written a couple of books as well since then,” Jonny added.
“I mean my own mental health is not finished, it’s ongoing. I’ve had a few relapses and it has been difficult. It’s really difficult but I’m in a different place today, I talk and I’m very open about it. I’ve got amazing support.”
Jonny is known for his book and documentary film The Stranger on the Bridge
Jonny has teamed up with Britt Pflüger for the release of his second book, The Book of Hope: 101 Voices on Overcoming Adversity. In this book, he brings together a range of voices to speak to the spectrum of our experiences of mental health and the power of speaking up and seeking help.
“I wanted to put something together in a book where different people, from all walks of life, share their stories on how they’ve overcome adversity and found hope again. I think particularly with the pandemic, everything that’s happening in the world right now, people need that hope and inspiration.
“For me it was really important to get a variety of people because not everyone can relate to my story. I wanted to get people from all around the world, from different cultures and backgrounds to share how they have overcome adversity. So that whoever’s reading it can get something at least from one person if not more people.”
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