In 2017, at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace, Jonny Benjamin was awarded an MBE for his services to mental health and suicide prevention. It was fair recognition for a man who has spent most of the last decade helping others in times of distress. In January 2014 he launched a social media campaign #FindMike to find the man who helped talk him down from taking his own life on Waterloo Bridge in 2008. It attracted attention around the world, and was supported by the then-Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Stephen Fry. Within two weeks he found the man. In 2018, Benjamin published a book about it called The Stranger on the Bridge. Benjamin now works as mental health ambassador and vlogger, helping to reach out to those who suffer from mental health difficulties.
As part of our ongoing Men’s Health Awareness Month, Orlebar Brown spoke to Benjamin about his life’s work.
There is much discussion about the terminology around suicide – can you talk me through this please?
The term “committing suicide” is outdated. It stems from the fact that suicide used to be a crime – and crimes are things we commit. Suicide was decriminalised in 1961 but the language around it has taken a lot longer to change. When people lose someone they love, sometimes this idea of it being something they “committed” can cause a lot of anguish, too, on top of everything they are already dealing with. No one wants to think of their loved one committing a crime, especially when it’s something like this. The correct way to talk about it is that someone “took their own life”.
How did you become involved in suicide prevention?
My mental health started deteriorating when I was in my mid-teens, and that's the point when I first started to think about suicide. I had very bad depression throughout my mid-teens, and in my early 20s I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which is a combination of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. I was hospitalised in January 2008 as a result. The thing is I ran away from the hospital, totally intending to take my life on Waterloo Bridge. But I was talked off the edge by a stranger, who called emergency services and got me back to the hospital.
Around six years later, when I was in a much better place, I decided to track him down. I wanted to thank him for what he'd done. I launched the #FindMike campaign on 14th January 2014. In 24 hours, it was shared 43,000 times and had over a million views. Two weeks later Mike had been found. His name was actually Neil Laybourn. We reunited, and since then we have worked together to improve people’s understanding about everything to do with suicide, mental illness, and how to help those who are affected by it.
How do you think we can address this subject?
It’s tough. The suicide rate among men has been unchanged for a long time; in 2018 three quarters of suicides were men. In terms of mental health services, we wait for men to come to us. But that has to change. Men in general don’t go looking for help. If you look at the mental health services, the dropout rate for men is really high. We need more services designed for men, by men. In Liverpool they have one called James’s Place.
What makes men not seek help?
Partly stubbornness, partly embarrassment, partly shame. We also still have quite a toxic macho culture: phrases like “big boys don’t cry” are still used all the time. It’s not helpful. Men think that they shouldn’t cry, that they can’t feel weak. We need to make sure we start young with boys, that we get kids to talk about their feelings too. That’s what I do when I go around schools now. If I'd have talked openly about my feelings when I was younger, I think it would have made a big difference. I think it probably would have stopped me from getting to the place that I got to.
What should we look out for in our friends?
Look for changes in behaviour. If you have a friend that suddenly becomes a lot quieter, make sure you check in on them. Even if it’s just on WhatsApp. Don’t be afraid to ask them often if they’re okay, especially if you don’t believe it when they say they’re fine. You have to be gentle, too. When I was first ill my friends sat me down and asked me what was wrong, and it was too intense. It was paralysing. You have to let people figure it out.