Exhausted, yet determined to succeed, Jonny Benjamin and Neil Laybourn were nearly five hours into their run and just a few miles from crossing the finishing line of the London Marathon, when they looked up and saw the most poignant of landmarks: Waterloo Bridge.
Nine years previously, Jonny, then aged 20 and having been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while struggling to conceal he was gay, decided to take his own life.
He climbed over the barrier, teetered on the edge and might have carried out what he had resolved to do but for the kindness and compassion of one stranger who noticed him.
While other commuters rushed by, a personal trainer named Neil waited with the distressed young man and gave him hope. “I really believe you’re going to get better, mate,’ he told Jonny reassuringly.
Now here they were in 2017, no longer on the bridge, but running underneath it, together, and in the name of helping a cause they are both extremely passionate about – mental health.
“Look where we had come from,” reflects the former JFS pupil. “From up there to down here. It was unbelievable, a really special moment.”
Jonny has much reason to feel overwhelmed by how far they have both come in the past decade. From two strangers meeting on a bridge, one desperate and unable to see a future; to Jonny launching the #findmike campaign in 2014 (he couldn’t remember Neil’s name so gave him the moniker of ‘Mike’), which went viral and engaged 319 million people around the world in helping him find the stranger who saved him; to their emotional reunion and their mission to become leading advocates of mental health issues and suicide prevention.
The pair’s successes have not stopped there. They met the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Prince Harry, as part of their work with mental health charity Heads Together and, in 2016, in recognition of launching the ThinkWell
initiative, a mental health programme for schools, Jonny was awarded an MBE.
Now the eloquent 31-year-old has written The Stranger On The Bridge, a moving memoir looking back over these incredible achievements, as well as the many challenges that led Jonny to contemplate taking his own life.
It’s a story that begins in childhood, when even before Jonny had started primary school he had experienced his first hallucinations. One of his earliest triggers was watching the otherwise benign film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, a children’s story about a big, friendly giant.
“I remember being in bed and seeing what I thought was the BFG – and hearing things. I was truly scared, but I didn’t communicate what was going on. Instead, I began lashing out. My behaviour began to change, because I was frustrated.”
He recalls how he purposely broke his mother’s new jewellery just before his brother’s barmitzvah and slammed his father’s hand in a door. Jonny even secretly fed an imaginary Pooh Bear honey in the kitchen, “covering the room in a sticky mess”.
His parents took him to a child psychologist, but by his own admittance, “no real progress was made”.
In fact, it was not until he was aged 20 that doctors would finally diagnose him with having schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. But there were many years in between when Jonny was simply left to navigate life without the help he needed.
“Young people’s mental health is not taken as seriously as it could be,” he explains. “Fifty percent of all mental health issues start before the age of 14, 75 percent before 18. We are really behind in terms of treatment, our knowledge and understanding.”
As a teenager, Jonny struggled not only with hearing voices and hallucinations, but his depression deepened and, given his traditional Jewish upbringing, he struggled to accept he was gay.
He reveals: “It was like a massive secret. I felt a lot of guilt, a lot of shame. I constantly worried about what people would think of me, whether the community accepted me. It affected not only my mental health, but my whole existence.”
After years of supressing unwanted thoughts and feelings of shame, Jonny made the heartbreaking decision to end his life at Waterloo Bridge, on 13 January 2008. Then he met Neil.
“I’d completely given up,” reflects Jonny. “But that conversation we had on the bridge really had a profound effect on me. Just having a stranger put his faith in me and say he believed in me was incredibly powerful.”
Since their meeting, Jonny and Neil resolved to help other young people with mental health issues.
“There’s much work to do,” he adds. “What we really want to see is parity of esteem, for people to take mental health as seriously as physical health. We won’t stop driving that message.”
The Stranger On The Bridge by Jonny Benjamin and Britt Pflüger is published by Bluebird, priced £16.99 (hardback). Available now.
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