EXCLUSIVE: BBC presenter urges British Jews to lift stigma around mental health
The presenter of a BBC documentary on mental illness has spoken about living with depression and schizophrenia and how the Jewish community still thinks of it as “something that happens to other people”.
Jonny Benjamin, who lives with both of these conditions, was asked to present Failed By The NHS, to be broadcast on BBC Three on Monday, after the production company saw his home-made YouTube videos on his illnesses.
The Edgware Reform Synagogue member from Stanmore, who now lives in Manchester, has given an eye-opening account of his experiences ahead of the documentary.
These include the time a GP told the 26-year-old to “eat more fruit” after he revealed he was suicidal, and when an A&E psychiatrist told Benjamin’s friends he thought Benjamin was “just being a bit dramatic”.
In relation to the Jewish community, Benjamin said: “There is a massive stigma to combat. Jews tend to think it happens to other people, so we simply don’t talk about it. When I was growing up it was not discussed in my own family.”
Tanya Harris of Jewish mental health charity JAMI agrees that there is a stigma attached to mental illness, saying that “ignorance and misinformation” were important factors in this. Benjamin is keen to help correct this. He has offered to work with Jewish schools and students to raise awareness.
He said: “I attended JFS when I was younger, where I didn’t receive any mental health education. But my friends at other schools said they had lessons on this important subject.”
A JFS spokesman said that mental health issues are now taught as part of the “life skills” curriculum and to sixthformers in workshops.
“Increasingly, schools, youth movements and synagogues are approaching us for mental health awareness training,” added Harris. “People are beginning to talk about a subject that was once taboo.”
Asked if he would talk to Jewish students if invited, Benjamin said: “Absolutely. It’s important to talk about all mental health, including suicide. Four young people a day take their own life – which is a shocking statistic. I’ve been there. I’ve tried to take my own life. But you can overcome it.”
He concludes: “When it comes to the Jewish community and people being ill – whether physical or mental – there’s this idea that you just stay strong and get on with life.” Yet despite the show’s findings, and his own disappointments, Benjamin says: “I’d still tell people to go to their GP and to make sure they get the treatment they deserve.”
• ‘Failed By The NHS’ is broadcast on BBC Three on Monday at 9pm