A chance encounter proved life-changing for a pair of campaigners, who reunited at Bristol University to tell their story and support a new pledge on mental health.
On January 14, 2008, Jonny Benjamin sat on the railings of London’s Waterloo Bridge with the intention of ending his life. A month before, he’d been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.
“When the psychiatrist said schizophrenia, it was like my whole world caved in. Everything I’d ever seen about it was wholly negative. I said to myself ‘this is it. People don’t get better from schizophrenia’. It was hopeless.”
Thankfully, passerby Neil Laybourn had other ideas. He was on his way to work on a grim Monday morning when he saw Jonny.
“Everyone had big winter coats on, gloves and hats, heads down. But as I’m walking over bridge, I see a guy sitting there in jeans and a t-shirt shivering, sitting on top of the railings, looking out over the Thames,” recalls Neil.
Concerned, Neil stopped to talk to Jonny, who said that he was going to commit suicide. Neil spoke to him for 25 minutes in the hope of changing his mind. And he did.
Jonny said: “I guess the real key thing that made me take a step back was when he said ‘do you know, I think you’re going to be alright. You will get better’. No one had said that to me before. It was the thing I needed to hear to pull me back from the edge.”
In spite of continuing struggles with his mental well-being, Jonny gradually began to get better.
He made a video documenting some of his personal psychological experiences in the hope of reaching out to others who had similar issues and put it on Youtube.
It was around this time that he began to get involved in a number of charities, including Rethink Mental Illness. They suggested that he try and find the person who stopped him from jumping and exactly six years later, he launched a social media campaign called #FindMike – not realising the name of the man who helped him was Neil.
The effort was successful nonetheless and since they were reunited, the two have become firm friends, campaigning together on mental health issues and attitudes.
Jonny and Neil spoke at The University of Bristol on Friday (October 6) in support of the Time to Change campaign.
Organised by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, Time to Change is a pledge that has been signed by professor Hugh Brady, president and vice chancellor of the university which commits to caring for the mental health of students and staff.
Bristol24/7 spoke to Jonny to hear his story, as well as what him and Neil are hoping to achieve
What was the motivation behind launching the #FindMike campaign?
I think the big motivation for me was obviously to find this guy to say thank you because he’d done such an amazing thing that had such a massive impact on me.
It was also to raise awareness of mental health and suicide in particular. Suicide is such a taboo – mental health, fortunately, is being more talked about – which is great, but suicide is still a difficult subject for people. The big aim of the campaign was to get rid of the fear of talking about it.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in this country, so we wanted to address the issue through doing the campaign and me talking about my experience I guess.
What happened when the two of you were reunited?
Well, firstly we had nearly 40 people come forward and say ‘oh yeah, I think that might have been me’ which was unbelievable. The thing is most of them were genuine – they were people who had stopped someone from jumping off a bridge in London and, like Neil, they’d just gone on their way back to work after. We call them silent heroes.
It took two weeks for Neil to come forward – his now-wife saw it on Facebook and once Neil saw my photo, he realised and got in touch straight away. We met up in a pub. It’s hard to put it into words…it was really emotional, overwhelming and surreal. It had been years but it felt like no time had passed at all and like we were friends already.
What do you think needs to be improved in terms of our understanding of mental health?
In society, people often don’t realise that a lot of the time it’s things like chemical imbalances or something that happens in the brain. There’s so much misunderstanding and I think it comes down to the fact that there’s a lack of research.
When you compare it to physical health – things like cancer, Parkinson’s – there’s so much funding put into it and such a priority for physical illnesses. Mental illness is comparatively 100 years behind, it’s really poor. There’s a real lack of parity between physical and mental health in terms of things like care, treatment, waiting lists.
The Government, for instance, made a Health and Social Care Act in 2012 which said there would be parity of esteem between physical and mental health treatment, including equal waiting times – but we’ve still not got it.
And every year the funding for mental health treatment gets cut, which is ludicrous when more and more people are asking for help. Until those at the top of the Government start to take it seriously, there will be that lack of understanding.
It needs to be included in things like education.
What would you say to anyone who was feeling like you were at Waterloo?
Firstly, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Suicidal thoughts and feelings are really common, as is feeling distressed and hopeless.
If people are feeling suicidal they don’t tend to talk about it, but it’s important to know there’s a lot of support out there. If you can go to family members or friends that’s great, but sometimes it’s too difficult. People should know that there’s other support systems like the Samaritans for example, whose helpline is available 24/7.
You can email or phone them – there’s even a branch in Bristol where you can walk in, sit down and talk to someone who is compassionate, very understanding and non-judgemental. Just someone there to listen who wants to help you.
The biggest thing is to have an outlet when you’re going through those really difficult dark thoughts and feelings. It’s important to understand that your thoughts and feelings are human and to remember it’s the brain, not you. Things like therapy or counselling can help you deal with it. The main message is that you’re not alone.
Read more: Bristol’s Mental Health Crisis