In May Channel 4 screened the documentary The Stranger On The Bridge. Jonny Benjamin was the star of that film and the story of his mental illness and subsequent rescue from suicide by a total stranger has attracted global interest. But the real story of Jonny Benjamin began many years ago and as a spokesperson for Jami, he wants to share it. He spoke to Brigit Grant
If Jonny Benjamin had known about Jami when he was 20, his life would have been very different. At that point in 2007, he had already been struggling with undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder for many years, but it was only when he went to Manchester Met to study drama that depression and losing touch with reality took over entirely. Yet he told no one. How could he even begin to explain the voice that had been in his head since he was a little boy or expect others to make sense of his terrifying daily ordeals when he could not?
“I had this very happy childhood, great family and friends and seemingly no reason to feel the way I did, “explains Jonny. “And that’s the hardest thing because you try and find a reason and then you feel guilty. I imagined people saying to me ‘What have you got to be depressed about?’ so I didn’t tell anyone.”
Jonny realised that the stigma surrounding mental health was as much of an issue for a young Jewish boy growing up in Stanmore as it is for a respected Jewish star like Stephen Fry. But while Fry was able to use his celebrity as a platform to promote the understanding of mental health, others like Jonny suffer in silence.
“When it got really bad I began to isolate myself,” said Jonny. “Drama at university was escapism for me as for 12 hours a day I could be someone else, on and off the stage. I acted my way through university and when my parents would come and see me, I would put on a mask. Neither they or my friends had any idea at all that I had been secretly going to the doctors and taking anti-depressants.”
The first time Jonny saw a doctor he was doing his AS levels at JFS and feeling suicidal. A referral to the Child and Adolescence Mental Health Service would have helped, but the waiting list to be seen was so long, Jonny didn’t bother and he had not been told about the work Jami does for people in his situation.
“An incredibly large number of young Jewish males suffer with Schizoaffective disorder which affects about 1 in 200 people nationally, but it goes largely unacknowledged by the community,” added Jonny who was told by a doctor at university that exercise and the right diet would sort him out. “That and anti-depressants, but while the pills helped the depression a bit, nothing would silence the demon that perpetually talked and threatened me.”
The turning point for Jonny occurred after a car accident in Manchester, which wasn’t serious, but resulted in his troubling demon taking over and forcing him to walk a dual carriageway in direct line of traffic. Concerned drivers tried to stop the hysterical young man dressed in only a T-shirt on that freezing cold night, but it was only when he collapsed and his housemates came to find him that Jonny knew he was at breaking point and needed serious help.
The news of Jonny’s condition came as a huge shock to his family as they had no clue and he had intended it to remain that way, which is a scenario Jami’s staff team frequently encounter.
Taken to the psychiatric hospital Boden House in Harrow, Jonny was diagnosed, put on anti-psychotic drugs and welcomed into group therapy. But he hated it.
“The hospital was awful for me as everyone around me was very unwell. There were people with different mental illnesses and others with addictions and we were all in together. And no one was getting better around me.”
The absence of any positive stories about people recovering from schizophrenia and not a single moment when he felt normal – left Jonny with only fear and dread as his bedfellows. “I was in the middle of my third year at university and I was thinking -will I ever get back there? Will I ever have a family? Will I ever get better? And the answer always seemed to be ‘No’. A reduced life expectancy on anti-psychotics and all the side effects that comes with them was too hideous to contemplate.”
And so Jonny decided to end his life.
The journey from the hospital in Harrow to Waterloo Bridge on the morning of Jan 14 2008 has been well-documented and turned Jonny into a media sensation, but as he told me about his thought process on that day, he relived it, describing how much he had longed to go to his family home, but knew he would be forced back into treatment.
Had Jonny not been stopped from killing himself by good Samaritan Neil Laybourn who talked him back over the barrier, things would have been very different for the Benjamin family and their son’s many friends who through no fault of their own had been unable to help. Indeed part of Jami’s work is to assist those who want to help a family member with a mental illness as it is outside the realms of most people’s experience and unlike a physical disability is much harder to identify.
Talking normally one-to-one with Neil Laybourn (pictured) who was not judgemental was what Jonny needed in his desperate state.
“I struggled with group therapy at the hospital as I was not ready to open up,” said Jonny who was sectioned after his suicide attempt, but released just before his 21st birthday. “The last time I saw Neil was on the bridge, but he told me I could get better and after that I turned a corner. The depression started to lift and I was more in touch with reality. They could see a change in me.”
Jonny went back to Manchester and graduated as he wanted to get his life back on track. “There were big holes in it and I felt as though I had been on the Truman Show from the age of ten. But I started making video blogs about my experience because I wanted to connect with other people who had similar problems.”
Suddenly Jonny had a platform to rival that of Stephen Fry’s with people from around the world clamouring to share similar experiences. “I even had a guy message me from New York to tell me he was going to kill himself and he wanted me to talk him out of it, “ said Jonny who is aware that his new-found celebrity means new responsibilities. “But there is only so much one person can do. Some seem to think I hold the key to recovery, but there are organisations like Jami which have the expertise to help. I wish I had known about Jami years ago as they offer treatment and hold really good seminars. Their aim is to promote better understanding of mental health in a community that isn’t as informed as it should be.”
Though Jonny was unable to recall the face or name of the man who saved him on that fateful January morning, he wanted to find him and when he was contacted by an independent film company Postcard Productions, they set about hunting down this hero together. The rest as anyone who saw the film, The Stranger On The Bridge knows is deeply emotional history. Enough to spark the interest of Paramount Pictures who wanted to buy Jonny’s life story. But he would sooner hang on to it for himself and as a producer at Postcard is now planning a play, a movie and educational programmes about mental health to take into senior schools.
“It is all very surreal,” said Jonny. “It feels like that person on that bridge isn’t me.” And thankfully it isn’t anymore.