I was born in 1987, grew up in Harrow and had what we all thought was a typical childhood, living in the family home with Mum, Dad and my older brother. Things changed around the age of three when I started to see and hear things that weren’t there. I became anxious, angry and violent, and my parents didn’t understand what was going on. They took me to the doctor and I was referred to a child psychologist. My parents didn’t want people to know I was seeing a psychologist at such a young age, so we kept it to ourselves.
At primary school, I was very hardworking, but found it difficult fitting in and being around people. I spent a lot of time by myself. That continued into secondary school: I was very academic, but once again I found it difficult socialising and fitting in. It was at this age that I started to hear a voice in my head. I assumed everyone did and that it was normal. I was hearing what I thought was the voice of an angel. Also, around this time, I saw The Truman Show. I developed what I now know is the ‘Truman Delusion’: people who see the film, begin to believe they’re in their own version of it.
I felt invisible at school, but thought, if I’m on this TV show, people will see me and they’ll like and respect me. But things changed in my mid-teens, when I started to get bad acne and was put on Roaccutane. I didn’t know what depression was and I didn’t even consider it, but I started to get really low moods, and didn’t understand why. We didn’t talk about mental health growing up back then. When I was at school, they showed us One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and that was our mental health education. I thought that’s what it meant to have mental health issues: you were pretty sick and you didn’t get better.
I was doing well in my GCSEs and everything on the outside seemed to be going well, but it was around this time that the voice in my head went from being this nice voice, this angel, to what I thought was the devil. Looking back, I link this with my struggle with my sexuality. Going to a Jewish school and coming from a Jewish background, I was told being gay is a sin. That had a massive impact on me. I felt a lot of shame and guilt and think there’s a link between that and this new voice that began to torment me. The voice would tell me to do things, which I would always have to do in threes. I would have to say things three times, touch something three times, or move three spaces, and the voice would say, ‘If you don’t do this, I’m going to punish you. I’m going to punish someone that you love.’
When I was 17, I went to my GP in secret. My best friend noticed something wasn’t right and we went together. My GP took me very seriously and referred me to CAMHS. I went for one appointment and by this time I wasn’t in a good place. I tried to hang myself in the school toilet. Suicide had come to the forefront of my mind, because it was really difficult living with the low moods and the voice and having to cover everything up. After my initial assessment, I was on the waiting list for months, until I gave up waiting and decided to move away to university in Manchester. I thought that a fresh start would solve everything.
Spiralling out of control
Of course, everything came with me to university. I thought everyone was having the time of their lives. I didn’t want to be the person to say I wasn’t and, once again, kept it all to myself and things began to spiral out of control. I began to self-harm, misuse alcohol and isolate myself. I was going to my doctor and secretly taking antidepressants, but nothing was addressing all the other stuff that was going on and, eventually, in my final year, I had a breakdown and became psychotic. I lost control over everything I was doing and saying. I felt like I was being possessed, like there was something inside of me. I went onto the streets of Manchester screaming and shouting. It wasn’t my words. I was picked up, taken to A&E and eventually transferred to a psychiatric hospital in North London, near my parents.
When I got there, my family and friends found out everything. My psychiatrist diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder. It felt like the end for me being given that diagnosis – my world came crashing down. I was admitted to hospital and felt hopeless there: everyone around me remained unwell. No one was getting better. A month into my stay, one night, something in me snapped. I thought the only way out of this nightmare was to end my life.
The next morning, 14 January 2008, I ran away from the hospital and ended up going to a bridge. I went onto the edge. My memory is hazy, but I don’t think I was on there for long when this stranger stood next to me and began talking. At first, I didn’t want him there and was quite rude. I wanted to get on with this and for him to go away. But there was something different about him. He was calm and composed. It was very different to my experience in hospital where, when I said I felt suicidal, they would say, ‘We need to up your medication and you need to go back to the suicide ward.’ I hated going to the suicide ward. Someone comes and watches you 24/7 and they don’t talk. They just sit and watch. There was never an opportunity for someone to listen like this guy listened. He was patient, and eventually I began to talk. He was asking me lots of questions. He grew up not far from Watford, so we had a connection. There were two key things he said that made all the difference. The first was, ‘Don’t be embarrassed.’ I’d never heard anyone say that before. I was embarrassed. That was the main reason I’d gone to bridge. I can’t even describe the embarrassment and shame about everything in my head, my diagnosis, my sexuality, as well. Just to hear someone say, ‘It’s fine, don’t feel embarrassed.’ I felt like a weight had been lifted.
But the key thing he said was: ‘You’ll be alright, mate. You’ll get better.’ I hadn’t heard that from anyone before. Hearing him say it, with such conviction, changed my mind. He suggested, ‘Let’s go for a coffee somewhere warm and talk it over,’ and, eventually, I agreed, because I had this connection with this guy and felt safe with him.
He helped me off the edge, but the police were waiting and they took me one way and him off another way. I was taken to hospital and sectioned. That was a difficult few hours. There was still the same stuff going on in my head, but I had a little bit of hope from talking to this guy, and this hope got me through the next few months.
When I was discharged from hospital, I was a different person. I didn’t want to talk about what had happened. I didn’t think I had mental health issues. I wanted everyone to leave me alone. I didn’t want to take my medication, so I stopped taking it and became unwell again. This time, I believed I was the Messiah and had visions I was going to save the world. I spent my time writing letter after letter after letter to people, and went through a phase of believing I was a reincarnation of Nina Simone. I can’t sing, but I made all these demos and sent them to record labels. Obviously, I didn’t hear anything back from any of them. I was lost, reduced to this shadow of a person I was before the diagnosis.
I have to talk
In my mid 20s, things changed. A family friend had a heart attack and I went to see him. He talked to me about everything he’d gone through, from the first pain in his arm while he was driving, to the bypass he’d had and what it felt like living with this heart condition. I asked myself, ‘How can he talk so openly about his health?’ There wasn’t a tiny ounce of shame when he was talking about his heart. I thought, ‘Why can’t I talk about my mental health?’
I went home that night and said to myself, I have to talk. But I couldn’t look someone in the eye and talk about what was going on. So, I got my camera phone and made a video. It was easier talking to the camera. All this stuff came out and I put it on YouTube under a different name because I didn’t want my family to see it. It was amazing, the responses I got from people. People were messaging from all around the world, saying, ‘I hear a voice’, or ‘I’ve had the Truman Delusion.’
Hearing other people talk about their experiences was such a relief. I started to make more videos and found a new purpose in life. I was helping people. It was helping me. Eventually, I started to talk to family and friends and said, ‘I’ve got mental health issues and I’m gay.’ I remember the weight that came off my shoulders when I could just be myself. I didn’t have to hide anything any more. That was the real turning point for me. That’s when I felt human again. It was at that point that I started to get involved with mental health charities and organisations. I found my path in life.
I got involved with Rethink Mental Illness. I told them my story and they said, ‘Have you ever thought of trying to find the guy who stopped you on the bridge?’ I said, ‘No.’ I didn’t remember what he looked like. He could be anywhere in the world. It just seemed impossible that we would find him. They said, ‘Let’s launch a social media campaign to find him.’ We did. Six years to the day that we first met on the bridge, we launched a campaign on breakfast TV. I didn’t remember his name, so I called the campaign ‘Find Mike’. The response was huge. It started trending and went viral around the world. We did the campaign to find this guy, but we also did it to raise awareness of mental health and suicide.
Suicide is an incredibly difficult subject to talk about, but we have to. We know from statistics that suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in this country, and the biggest killer of both male and females under 35. We wanted this campaign to get people talking, but the most incredible thing happened. We had 38 people come forward, saying, ‘I think it was me who stopped you.’ The most incredible thing is, apart from one or two, these people were genuine. They had all stopped someone on a bridge around that time in London. All these silent heroes – people like the guy who stopped me, just helping someone on a bridge, talking them off and then going on their way. Extraordinary stories. It’s amazing that there are all these compassionate, silent heroes. But none of them were the person I was looking for. We were about to give up when, finally, the person I was looking for recognised me on Facebook, got in touch and said, ‘It’s me. It’s not Mike. It’s Neil.’ We were reunited and the whole thing was filmed as part of a documentary.
It’s difficult to put into words what it was like being reunited. It was very special for both of us. We talked and talked and forgot the cameras were there. After that, Neil said, ‘How can we work together to raise awareness, to campaign?’ This is what we’ve been doing ever since.
A year after that, our documentary went out on Channel 4 and received an overwhelmingly positive response. This opened lots of doors for us. The thing that keeps me going is the work Neil and I do. My particular focus is young people. We know that three-quarters of all mental health issues begin in adolescence, so two years ago we launched ThinkWell, a mental health workshop run by Pixel Learning. We go into primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities around the country. We also engage with parents and teachers through workshops.
My vision is to get mental health embedded into the curriculum. Neil and I have also just set up a new charity, Beyond Shame, which is all about getting mental health into education. We go into so many schools where teachers say, ‘We don’t know what to do. We refer to CAMHS, but there’s a massive waiting list. We’ve got no school counsellor, or the school counsellor is already full up and it’s so incredibly frustrating.’ We want to change that.
As we all know, we don’t focus enough on prevention. We focus on mental health at the crisis end, when things go wrong. But if we take it all the way back to the prevention stage, it can make such a big difference. That’s one of the key areas we’re working on. The other area is the crisis, when things do go wrong, which is Neil’s focus. He’s created a mental health conference for the workplace, which took place on 20 November.
One highlight for me was when we ran the London Marathon together last year. We ran underneath the bridge where we met all those years ago. It was even more special because I’d just come out of hospital following a relapse last February. I’ve had a few relapses over the last few years. It’s still a struggle, but now I manage my mental health. I take medication. I know it isn’t for everyone, but it keeps me relatively stable. I have therapy every week, compassion-focused therapy. My therapist and our relationship are very special. He says, ‘Jonny, it’s not your fault. It’s the way your brain is wired.’ I find that incredibly helpful. I always used to think the difficult side of the brain was all there was to me. Now, I know there are other things to me. The other thing that helps me massively is mindfulness. It doesn’t switch off the thoughts and feelings necessarily, but it gives me some peace of mind. But I think, more than anything, it’s talking. That’s the biggest difference now. I talk.
I don’t know why we separate the mind and the body, mental health and physical health – it’s all one. We say to young people, ‘What would you do if you fell over and hurt your leg?’ They always say, ‘We’d go and tell someone.’ We say, ‘Mental health is no different.’ It has definitely helped me to think of my mental health as something physical.
The thing that really gets me is when we talk about suicide. There have been so many times when we’ve given a talk and at the end someone will say, ‘I’ve never told anyone this but I lost so and so to suicide.’ When it comes to suicide, I often find that people aren’t allowed to properly grieve. It’s something we really desperately need to work on. My book, The Stranger on the Bridge, came out at the beginning of this year. It was a really interesting experience writing it. I’ve kept a diary ever since I was about 11 years old and went back through all my old diaries, which was hard.
I’ll never get back to being the person I was pre diagnosis. I’m a different person now, but I’m finally starting to settle into the skin I’m in.
Jonny Benjamin is an award-winning mental health campaigner, film producer, public speaker, writer and vlogger. He speaks publicly about living with mental illness and has written articles and given interviews on TV, radio and in print around the world to help educate and break stigma. He has also produced and presented documentaries on BBC Three and Channel 4 on the subjects of mental health and suicide. In 2016, Jonny launched ThinkWell, a mental health programme for UK secondary schools. He is currently developing a mental health workshop for primary schools. Jonny spent 2017 writing the first of two books on mental health, The Stranger on the Bridge, which was published by Pan Macmillan in May 2018.