To mark World Suicide Prevention Day, we share this blog from mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, the former JFS student who six years ago was talked down from ending his life on Waterloo Bridge by a stranger.
Here, Jonny explains how badly the social stigma of being gay affected him, and his message of hope to those around the world who are suffering from similar struggles.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to be reunited at the beginning of this year with the stranger (who I now know to be called Neil!) who stopped me from taking my life six and a half years ago.
It was an emotional encounter. I was overwhelmed with joy at the chance to finally thank the man who prevented me jumping from a bridge in central London all those years before.
Memories of that day came flooding back, as they have done gradually since launching the campaign. It’s not been easy reliving what led me to attempting suicide. But it’s also been something of a revelation.
Looking back, I had always thought it was receiving my diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression, which had caused me to want to end my life. But there was also a secret which I was hiding from everyone around me that I also could no longer bear to live with.
I was ten years old when I actually first started experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia. It was also around that age that I first remember feeling attracted to someone of the same sex.
I was sitting in a restaurant at the time celebrating a family member’s birthday when a male waiter caught my attention and I began to feel attracted towards him. I don’t recall too much about him, but what I do remember was an enormous sense of shame.
Being Jewish, I was taught that homosexuality was a sin from an early age; I quickly buried the memory of that evening and tried to deny the existence of those feelings throughout my teenage years.
At 20 I became seriously unwell with psychosis. I believed I was being possessed by the devil. I also believed I had done something seriously wrong for this to happen to me.
I was admitted into hospital in December 2007 and diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. It wasn’t long before my psychiatrist began questioning my previous relationships, and my sexuality.
“I’ve had a couple of girlfriends,” was always my reply. I said little else and he usually moved on to question me about another aspect of my life.
A few weeks into my stay though, my psychiatrist decided to delve further into the matter one day: “Let’s talk about your sexuality. Have you ever had feelings toward another man?”
I shook my head incessantly. But I began to recall the memory of that day as a ten year old boy sitting in the restaurant, and all those unbearable feelings attached to it.
My immediate thought was: “I’m going to kill myself.”
Just as no-one had ever talked about the possibility of recovery from schizophrenia; no-one had ever said it was acceptable to be gay. In fact, I had always heard quite the opposite because of my background.
I attempted to take my life very soon after, but I was stopped by the good Samaritan and his words of hope that I could overcome any adversity in life.
A few months after the incident, my psychiatrist once again asked me the same question about my sexuality. I finally confessed to him that I had had feelings towards other men.
I’m not sure what was tougher at the time: telling people that I had a mental illness, or telling them I was gay. Where I grew up, both carried a weight of stigma. Despite this, the very weight on my shoulders began to lift a little every time I told someone about these things.
I can safely say now that I am truly the happiest I have ever been.
But when I read of the treatment of gay people in countries like Russia, where it is illegal to share information about homosexuality with under 18s, it strikes a chord with my own experience of growing up in a world where homosexuality was considered sinful.
Fortunately for me, I never witnessed the persecution Russia’s gay population currently face. I cannot imagine the impact that having to see the gay community repeatedly condemned and even attacked, would have on a young person struggling with their sexuality.
A study by the Youth Chances project in England revealed that almost half of young gay people have contemplated suicide because of their sexuality.
It’s a shocking figure, and yet this is a study carried out in a country where homosexuality has become much more accepted within recent years. It leads one to wonder just how many young people in a country such as Russia may be gravely suffering because of their anti-gay laws.
I will continue my work to raise awareness of mental illness and suicide in particular, now that the #findMike campaign has reached its resolution.
The aim of it was not just to find the stranger on the bridge, but to give others the same message which Neil gave to me that “It is possible to overcome any adversity in life.”
Such a message seems rather futile for a young, gay individual in a country like Russia, but it I share it anyway in the hope it may reach at least one person who might be struggling about coming to terms with their sexuality or any other issue they might face.
As I know first-hand, the impact of someone planting even the tiniest seed of hope can have a profound impact upon the mind that had none before.
Originally published on HuffingtonPost.co.uk
- HELP: If you need advice on coping with suicidal thoughts, self harm or how to support loved ones, visit mind.org.uk or call our Infoline on 0300 123 3393. Alternatively you can visit the National Self Harm Network here.
- For help on suicide prevention or for advice and support, visit the Samaritans website or call 08457 90 90 90.