When Michael Benjamin visited his son at Manchester University, he believed the 20-year-old drama student was safe and well.
He thought the former JFS student looked tired and thin, but he put it down to partying and demanding play rehearsals.
But when he returned home for the winter holidays, Mr Benjamin something was wrong.
His son, mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, kept to his room. A visit to the local GP, confirmed that he needed to be treated in a psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
In January 2008, he walked out of hospital in a t-shirt and attempted suicide jumping off Waterloo Bridge. He was stopped by a local runner, later identified as Neil Laybourne.
“Jonny hid everything from us, we had no idea,” said his father, 72, who worked in the clothing industry. “I was in London for a meeting when I got the call. They told me he was at St Thomas’ hospital and I rushed there.
“He was in a side-room by himself wearing just a t-shirt and covered in bruises, from when he had climbed over.
“He was taken back to hospital and they sectioned him. No one explained what that meant.”
Mr Benjamin said little information was provided to parents and carers of people affected by mental health – and that he was initially reluctant to research his son’s condition, because “it’s never good”.
Based in Bushey, Hertfordshire, Mr Benjamin said men struggle to vocalise mental health battles, noting suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under 35 in the UK: “I don’t think men look for help as much. I think they hold their feelings in,” he said.
Mr Benjamin, trustee of a charity co-founded by his son called ‘Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma’, which works with young people, is part of an informal coffee group made up of Jewish fathers of people who suffer from mental health issues. “It’s nothing official. We have a WhatsApp group and once a month we would get together to talk and have a coffee, cake and bagel. We can’t resolve everything but we are a sounding board and can signpost. It takes people away from everyday situations while still talking about mental health – the highs and the lows.”
But now, with more awareness, helplines and signposting in schools and synagogues across the UK, Mr Benjamin, a member of Edgware & Hendon Reform synagogue, says the issue of mental health has become more openly discussed in the community than it was ten years ago.
“Thankfully everything has moved on. People have taken mental health as seriously as physical health, especially over the last three years. Years ago you would not have had shuls opening doors to talk about mental illness,” he said, noting that he has spoken at United Synagogue to Reform shuls and at schools including JFS and Yavneh.
“The Jewish community are doing a lot to help get rid of the stigma and help people.”
Jewish News editor discusses this week’s mental health edition of the newspaper.