In 2008, drama student Jonny Benjamin decided to take his life, by jumping from Waterloo Bridge in London. One man saved his life.
What ensued was one of the most impressive manhunts in the history of Twitter. #FindMike (a man actually named Neil Laybourn) became a worldwide trend and attracted global mainstream media in the search for this one man who made the difference between life and death. We speak to Jonny about how his story is now the subject of a new documentary The Stranger On The Bridge, and how coming out as gay was equally as hard as coming out with a mental illness.
JH: Now that the documentary is out and it’s not just morning TV or radio snippets, but the story told by you, can you describe how you feel?
JB: It feels quite surreal to be honest for it to be out there. It feels good. I’ve had some really amazing feedback from people that either feel that they’ve been educated or people that have been going through similar things themselves. I’m really pleased with the reaction.
JH: Does it feel like you’ve got closure?
JB: Yeah it does. It feels like that chapter is closed, it was a really dark place that I was in and it feels like that door is closed to that chapter now. Which is a good feeling.
JH: But Hollywood is knocking on the door?
JB: Yeah, we have had approaches from Hollywood, again very surreal, but we’re in early days and early stages.
JH: You’ve talked about getting closure and how it feels good, but how do you feel about this story being on the silver screen, going out to an even wider audience than you’ve had so far?
JB: It’s great because the whole point of this is to raise awareness of both suicide and mental illness. If it goes even bigger, or even further then great, because it will increase awareness, help more people. So I’m happy for it to go far and wide as possible, if it’s going to help people.
JH: How discriminatory do you think society is for those living with mental health problems?
JB: I think it’s getting much better, I think the stigma around mental illness is decreasing, so it’s getting easier to live with a mental illness in public. It’s still got some way to go though, particularly for conditions like schizophrenia. There’s a lot of understanding out there on depression and bipolar, but there’s very little understanding about schizophrenia.
I was reading one survey, it said that three quarters of people with schizophrenia don’t tell their friends and family, which is a huge number. So there’s a lot of stigma out there about schizophrenia and that’s the point of the film we’ve just done, to reduce that stigma really.
JH: Was it difficult to go back to the bridge and to Neil (the man dubbed Mike) again and revisit the past?
JB: At some points it was difficult. When I looked through all the photos of the different Mikes that came forward… that was really difficult. You definitely have to go back to that place that you were (at). I found that quite tough. Going back to the bridge? I got used to it in the end. We had so many interviews and so many photo-shoots on the bridge, you get used to it really.
JH: Since the broadcast of the film, have you noticed people treating you differently?
JB: No, I haven’t to be honest. Not at all. Everyone’s been the same with me. Almost like it hasn’t happened now. It feels quite strange, feels like it was a bit of a dream. No one’s treating me differently. What I have got is a really overwhelming response, which is lovely. Really overwhelming. In a good way.
JH: Twitter can be used so positively but also it is a platform for trolling. Do you have a mechanism to deal with negativity? One particular celebrity who will go unmentioned had a pop… How are you dealing with people that might criticise you for bringing this issue to light?
JB: I just try and ignore it really. Ninety-nine per cent of people had positive feedback to say. It was just one or two people who were critical of it. I just ignore it really. They’re looking to start a fight and I don’t want to detract attention away from what the programme is really about, which is to raise awareness. I don’t really care what they say to be honest. It just shows their ignorance really. I feel sorry for them if anything.
CREDIT: Supplied by PR
PICTURED: Mike, Whose real name is Neil.
JH: What do you feel about the term mental health or mental illness? Could it be expressed better?
JB: With mental health there is that stigma. But what other words do you use really? I know some people have got issues around mental health and mental illness but I really don’t know what other term we would use. We’ve all got mental health. It’s like a spectrum really.
JH: Do you think more celebrities like Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax should be coming out with their mental health issues?
JB: I think it’s really tough, because of the stigma for people to come out, but I think it’s happening, especially in the last few years I’ve noticed that people are becoming a lot more open. There should be no shame in it really. The more high profile people who come out and talk about it, is fantastic really. It inspires other people to do the same.
JH: How much has your sexuality played a part in your depression and in your schizophrenia? Is there a connection?
JB: I think there is. It was a massive weight on my shoulders hiding my sexuality and it definitely contributed towards what I went through I’d say. I was so scared about coming out. I come from a Jewish family and it’s something that’s frowned upon in the Jewish religion. I was really scared about coming out. It definitely added to my mental health issues for sure. When I came out eventually, I came out two months after I was diagnosed; it completely changed my life around for the better. Struggling with my sexuality definitely contributed to my suicidal thoughts and feelings. That’s how terrified I was about coming out.
JH: Which was easier to come out about for you? Being gay or having mental health issues?
JB: I think it’s equally hard to be honest. Equally as hard. Coming out about my mental illness was tough, really tough especially towards my friends. I found it really tough to come out to them. But with coming out about sexuality I found it harder to come out to my family.
JH: People must feel like they know so much about you, but really they only know a certain section about you, because there’s more to you than a) being gay and b) having a mental illness. Do you think people think that’s it? Nothing more to Jonny? Does being open with your mental health make it difficult to find a partner?
JB: Having mental health issues makes it difficult to find a partner more than anything. Things like paranoia and intrusive thoughts – some of the symptoms of schizophrenia are heightened when you’re in a relationship. I’ve never been in a proper relationship, I would say and I’ve always found it quite hard dealing with mental health issues when you’re with a person. A lack of understanding about my mental health makes it even harder. I might be very paranoid about where they’re going, whom they’re seeing. It’s a level of trust that I find hard to gain.
JH: So are you more interested in looking after yourself at the moment then finding a partner?
JB: Yeah. The last two months have been really difficult; I became ill again at the end of last year. That’s my priority now to get my mental health back on track and relationships will come second.
JH: Is the NHS or the Government doing enough to engage in this issue?
JB: There’s nowhere near enough, in the UK there’s 17 suicides every day. The reason why it’s so bad is because there’s not enough education and support. We should be going into schools at an early age, into universities and work places as well to educate people and let them know that they’re not alone and they can get support if they’re struggling. It feels like a taboo, the subject we don’t want to talk about. But it’s all about reaching out.
When I was 16 or 17 at school and I was really starting to struggle with my mental health, if someone would have come in, a guest speaker, and just said “This is what mental health is, this is what you can do”, it would have changed my life around.
But unless we start talking about it then more and more people are going to suffer and unfortunately take their lives.
If you need to talk to somebody about issues raised in this interview there is a helpline for the LGBT community open from 10AM to 11PM everyday of year. Call: 0300 330 0630 or visit: www.llgs.org.uk