British honors are awarded on merit, for exceptional achievement or service. When Jonny Benjamin MBE joined us in Qubit’s London HQ, it was easy to understand why he was awarded one for his outstanding service to the community.
Jonny is an award-winning mental health campaigner, film producer, public speaker, writer, and vlogger. At the age of 20, he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, and later began making films on YouTube that have been watched by millions of people.
He joined a grateful Qubit audience to share his own incredible story, speak about the viral ‘Find Mike’ campaign - the search for a stranger who talked him out of taking his own life in 2008 - and discuss what he is doing for mental health awareness today.
The journey to a diagnosis
Jonny shared how, at the age of 3 or 4, he began to hear things. He spoke of his interactions with doctors and child psychologists, and of being too young to really understand that not everyone had their own internal voices.
He talked reflectively on his grief at the loss of his grandmother, his influential Jewish faith, struggles with his sexuality and how these all collided, confused and dominated his thoughts. He heard both an angel and, later, a demon in his head.
Jonny’s condition worsened in his teens. After watching ‘The Truman Show’, he suffered the delusion that, like Jim Carrey’s character in the film, cameras were watching him and that people in his life were merely actors.
At the age of 18, Jonny thought university would solve everything. Everyone there seemed to be enjoying themselves, but he felt he was the only person grappling with these problems: “I really thought I was going insane”. As a young adult he ended up “on the streets, screaming and shouting” until he was put into a psychiatric hospital and given a diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder.
Finding ‘Mike’ and Jonny’s new purpose
After several months of struggling, Jonny felt hopeless. He went to Waterloo bridge to end his life. On the physical and mental edge, a stranger appeared from nowhere and began talking to him.
“This conversation changed everything for me.”
At first, Jonny didn’t want to engage with his unknown savior - “he was disrupting me” - but the calm words of compassion helped save his life. Coaxed down to the pavement, the police were waiting and Jonny was sectioned. But he felt different. He still had the noisy, clanging turmoil in his head, but he now felt a “little bit of hope”.
During his recovery, Jonny began to make vlogs on his camera phone. He found it easier to talk to a camera than looking into the faces of therapists. Jonny's recovery was slow, but when he started to feel better, he wanted to track down the stranger that'd helped him.
In January 2014, six years to the day that he stepped down from the bridge, Jonny launched ‘Find Mike’: a social media campaign to raise awareness of suicide and mental illness whilst searching for the stranger. The message went viral and received global media attention. Within just two weeks Jonny found Neil Laybourn, his life-saving disruptor. This story is told in the moving documentary film, The Stranger on the Bridge.
Improving mental health today
Now, Neil and Jonny work together in the community, speaking out about mental health at schools and in colleges. In 2016, the Queen honoured Jonny with an MBE. This year they both launched a new mental health charity, Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma. Jonny and Neil’s work continues to have long-term, significant impact and stands as an example to others.
Suicide is a difficult subject to address, but the statistics are shocking: it takes an average of 10 years from first symptoms to a diagnosis. And 10 years is just not good enough when, in the UK, someone kills themselves every two hours.
A tip of Jonny’s that stayed with me is thinking about mental health as we would physical health. He reminded us that mental health is the way our brains are wired and we should not separate our brain from the rest of us.
In the workplace, this can understandably feel harder and more stigmatised than anywhere else. With the sheer number of hours we spend there, this also has to change. Employee welfare is a Qubit priority, and the Employee Assistance Programme is a key part of that. Qubit’s management encourages anyone who is struggling with personal issues to contact the programme.
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