On Saturday 25th January, we were delighted to welcome Jonny Benjamin MBE to speak to our congregation about his experiences with mental illness and his journey to becoming an award winning mental heath campaigner.
He is also a film producer, public speaker, writer and vlogger from London. In the Queen’s 2017 New Year Honors List, Jonny was awarded an MBE for his services to mental health and suicide prevention.
“Mental illness was not spoken about when I was growing up”
Jonny spoke about having a normal upbringing in North London – although when he was about 4 years’ old his behaviour and sleep patterns changed and he became more isolated. He was briefly referred to a child psychologist.
He explained that his mental health issues really began when he was a student at JFS. However, mental illness was not discussed during his time there. “The only reference to mental illness was a screening of “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which was hardly a positive image!”
When we went to University he hoped it would be a fresh start, but this was not the case. In his third year he had a psychotic breakdown and was admitted to hospital. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar.
The Stranger on the Bridge
Jonny spoke about his lack of hope whilst in hospital and the lack of humanity he found there. After a month, he managed to run away from the hospital and made his way to Waterloo bridge, intending to take his own life. It was there that he met a young man who talked to him and persuaded him not to jump. He remembered that this man told him not to be embarrassed and said “Mate, you’ll be alright, you’ll be fine”. No-one had ever said this to him before and it gave him hope, even after he was sectioned and taken back to hospital after the event.
Years later he started a social media campaign to find this man, who he later found out was called Neil, which was eventually successful, This search is the subject of a powerful documentary and book, both titled “The Stranger on the Bridge”
The brain is an organ like any other…..
Jonny spoke about his early twenties which were a “write-off” as he struggled with his illness and saw his friends graduate and starting to move forward with their lives and careers. In his mid-twenties he became involved in the Jewish mental health charity, Jami, and received one-to-one support and group therapy.
Jonny is now an ambassador for this charity. Over the past few years he has been speaking publicly about his mental illness in order to educate people and break the stigma. He has particularly focussed on speaking in schools and encouraging young people to understand that the brain is like any organ in the body. It too can suffer from diseases – therefore such diseases should not be subject to any more stigma than any others. He is keen to promote preventative work in schools so that young people are comfortable in asking for help early on.
As well as schools, he speaks to Universities, student unions, corporations, the Police, prisoners and psychiatric conferences.
Insight, acceptance and wisdom
Asked about his current health, Jonny explained that he takes medication, sees a psychiatrist, practices mindfulness and is much more aware of circumstances that can trigger his illness. He understands that too much stress can be harmful to him so he is careful not to take on too much and ask for help when he needs it. He spoke about how his experiences and treatment have led to insight, acceptance and wisdom about his condition.
Powerful, moving and uplifting
Speaking after the event, Rabbi René Pfertzel said “Listening to Jonny speak was powerful, incredibly moving and ultimately uplifting. Mental health problems are a part of the human condition and it is vital that people do not feel embarrassed to talk about them and seek help. The work that Jonny is doing in raising awareness of these issues is vital and we are so proud and delighted that he came to talk to us this morning”.
(Together with Neil Laybourn, the man who was the “Stranger on the Bridge” Jonny has also founded the charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma to support young people, their families and educators in dealing with mental health issues).
Other organisations / charities Jonny mentioned:
Rethink – a network of local groups and services, expert information and successful campaigning
The Amy Winehouse Foundation – works to prevent the effects of drug and alcohol misuse on young people
Shout – UK’s first 24/7 text service, free on all major mobile networks, for anyone in crisis anytime, anywhere.