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Interview: Jonny Benjamin, mental health campaigner

Interview: Jonny Benjamin, mental health campaigner

After years of struggling to receive help for his mental health issues and recently diagnosed schizophrenia, Jonny Benjamin found himself on Waterloo Bridge on the freezing cold morning of 14 January 2008 with the aim of taking his own life. However, a stranger intervened and after roughly 20 minutes of talking Benjamin stepped down. Not only did the complete stranger stop him from committing suicide but he gave him, as Benjamin describes, a “sense of hope that I had never had before”. Following the encounter where the two “quickly built up a connection” they were separated with Benjamin being returned to hospital.

Six years later Benjamin was determined to find the man that changed his life, so he teamed up with Rethink Mental Health Illness to launch the campaign #FindMike. A short video clip was posted on Rethink Mental Illness’ facebook and twitter sites and within just 24 hours it had been shared 43,000 times, as well as being viewed more than a million times. Two weeks later Benjamin was reunited with the man he thought was named Mike but was in fact Neil Laybourn. The two have since worked alongside each other to campaign for mental health with #FindMike turning into a Channel 4 film The Stranger on the Bridge.

Benjamin now hopes that by discussing not only his experience with mental health, but also how he was let down for many years by the healthcare services available in the UK, he can make a difference. Nursing in Practice talks to Benjamin about his personal experience, what he wants to change and his current work urging for mental health to be taught in schools in the UK.

Q)Why do you feel so strongly about mental health issues?

A)From my own experience of suffering in silence I just don’t want anyone to experience what I did. Not getting the help that was needed when it was needed; like with CAMHS (Child and adolescent mental health services), and my experience in A&E wasn’t great – it’s not an isolated case.

Q)When do you feel your mental health problems should have been noticed?

A)Something I am working on now is mental health in schools. I never had anything in school about mental health or wellbeing. I really believe that if I would have had something in my teens it would have been different.

All I got [in school] was to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [a film about a psychiatric ward where patients are treated with abuse and electroconvulsive therapy] in a lesson at the end of the school year and it honestly terrified me. It made me not want to tell anyone about my mental health. Also, CAHMS, I really wished that they would have – and so many people say this about them – not kept me waiting and I wish they wouldn’t have said to me we will see you every week from now on. Not hearing from them for months , I guess you just give up and think ‘I’m not worthy of getting help’, and ‘I’m obviously not that unwell’. It is really tough, I talk to quite a lot of mental health professionals, especially in CAHMS and so many of them say they are frustrated.

Q)How did your own mental health issues turn into campaigning?

A)A few years after I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder [2010-2011] I started to make videoblogs about my mental health. I wanted to reach out to people, I felt very alone and isolated because around the time when I was diagnosed people did not talk about mental health.

One day Steven Fry tweeted out my video My Journey With Schizoaffective Disorder [in 2012] and that changed things; people started watching my films and then I was asked to do a BBC3 documentary about the mental health service and how it can let people down. That is where and when I got into campaigning about things that need to change.

I became an ambassador for Rethink Mental Illness and a champion of Time To Change.

Q)What do you want to achieve from your current campaigns?

A)I have a lot of areas I am currently working on, a big one is mental health in young people, hence the mental health workshops that launched in schools in January called ThinkWell [see Resources].

I’m also trying to lobby the Government [to see more mental health education in schools], which is difficult, and I’m trying to get it out there through social media. The more people I speak to about mental health in schools the more I see a lot of people actually do believe there should be some sort of mental health education in school.

The other thing that I am focusing more and more on is suicide prevention, again I have met with various MPs [these include minister of state for community and social care Alastair Burt, minister of state at the Department of Health Norman Lamb and shadow mental health minister, Luciana Berger] because I know there is much more we can do. I have worked together with charities like CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) and MIND to raise awareness of suicide and suicide prevention. In this country suicide prevention strategies are very poor. The government has an aim to reduce suicide by 10% by 2020. There are more than 6,000 suicides in the UK each year, so reducing it by 10% would still leave 5,000, which isn’t good enough.

Q)How do you think people perceive mental health issues?

A)Attitudes are definitely changing. The Time To Change campaign has made a huge difference; research has shown that stigma is decreasing.

Awareness in general has also improved; there are regular TV programmes about mental health now, but we have still got a long way to go. Men and mental health is something that I really want to focus on. We have seen the suicide rate in women half in the last 30 years but for men it just stays the same.

In terms of peoples’ attitudes from 10 years ago things have improved, there is more understanding and acceptance especially around certain conditions. 

Q)How would you like people to view/perceive mental health?

A)No different to physical health. If someone breaks an arm people are understanding of that and they will ask ‘how is your arm doing’ or ‘how is the recovery’ but with mental health issues they don’t talk about it because you can’t see it – it’s invisible. The brain is no different to any other organ in the body. I think one day we won’t have the terms mental health and physical health it will just be health, but I think that day will be a while from now. The government and the NHS have some way to go with that. At the moment the government promises parity of esteem between physical and mental health but it is still not there. Waiting lists for mental health are much larger than waiting lists for physical health.


Q)What would you change about mental health services in the UK?

A)I think we need to start by reforming CAHMS because it is just ridiculous how now if you turn 18, and you are in CAHMS having treatment, you are all of a sudden cut off [from the service] because of your age. Sometimes you’re transferred to the adult mental health service, but it can take a long time and patients might not be eligible. We lose a lot of people through that age gap. It is just not working and I don’t understand why the government isn’t addressing this.

We need to look at other countries and their systems. Australia has a young persons’ mental health service called Headspace and it is up until the age of 25. It works so much better because it has treatment in different settings, for example youth centres rather than hospitals and clinical settings provide mental healthcare. It has it flaws but it works much better than what we have here in the UK.

In terms of mental health as a whole there needs to be an emphasis on medication. I am not knocking medication at all, I myself take medication and will probably take it all my life, but I have had to find things out myself. Patients should have more of a say, at the moment we hear lots of stories about how patients are having to travel hundreds of miles from their homes to receive mental health treatment, which is just unacceptable.

There should be more of an emphasis on recovery in mental health. When I was in hospital if I had just had more of an emphasis on recovery I don’t know if I would have ran away and wanted to kill myself. At the time no-one spoke about recovery. I visited a mental health hospital in Grimsby last year and it was great, there were inspirational quotes on the walls and the patients got involved in things like sorting out the menus for the week and cooking.

Also, my dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014 and upon arriving home he produced lots of leaflets that had been given to him by specialists; they were positive and focussed on recovery – no one gets anything like that when it comes to mental health. I certainly didn’t [but if I did] it would have made a huge difference.


Q)You have said previously that you want mental health to be taught in schools, what difference do you feel this could make?

A)I feel it is important because the statistics speak for themselves really; 75% of mental health problems begin in adolescence, so to me it doesn’t make sense that there is [mainly] a focus on young peoples’ physical health. I did sports twice a week in school but never once did anything about my mental health.

We know more young people than ever are struggling with their mental health and more young people than ever last year were admitted to hospital for things like self-harm and suicide attempts. If we want to have mental and physical health equality then surely we need to have mental health being taught in schools and included in the curriculum. I would personally like to see it across the whole curriculum, for example in English we study Romeo and Juliet and at the end of the play both main characters kill themselves but they don’t talk about that – it just doesn’t make sense that we don’t talk about these things.


Q)Do you plan on continuing campaigning for mental health?

A)Absolutely, that is definitely the case. I am also focusing attention on mental health around the world. One documentary that I have been planning for a long time is looking at mental health in different countries. I am going to India in June to look at services available for young people. India has the highest teenage suicide rates in the world. Generally there are 700 suicides every day in India, it is something we urgently need to address. We need to be looking at the way mental health is treated across the world and that is something I would really like to push forward and work on. Hopefully going to India will help with that.


Pixel learning (ThinkWell workshops) –

Jonny Benjamin’s website –

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Benjamin sparked conversation across the internet when he launched a campaign to find the man who stopped him committing suicide from Waterloo Bridge. Now, he has become a full-time campaigner publically speaking, writing and creating videos and films about mental health illness