Ignas met and talked to Jonny Benjamin in November 2018, where he and his savior and fellow man Neil Laybourn came to attend a suicide prevention conference.

How would you like to be introduced?

I work in mental health. I call myself a mental health campaigner or an activist in mental health. It is someone that works across different areas of mental health. I find it hard to describe myself because I work in so many different areas — schools, prisons, universities looking at suicide prevention.

Mental health worker and activist... Why not? Is your real name Jonny Benjamin?

My full name is Jonathan Benjamin. Everyone calls me Jonny. I like Jonny.

Now, let’s talk about mental health as an area. I understand that you don’t just work around it, but you also have a diagnosis.

I have something called . It’s a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I got the diagnosis when I was 20, and I am 31 now. It was a big shock for me. I knew something wasn’t right in my head, and I was depressed. I was delusional. I’ve heard a voice in my head, so I knew something wasn’t right. But it was a big shock when I got that diagnosis of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It was a massive shock for my family as well. I’d been able to keep it hidden because I didn’t want my family to know everything that had been happening. But when I was diagnosed, it was terrible. I was put into a hospital, and everything changed overnight. That’s when I went to this bridge — I had this moment on the bridge. It was a month after I got my diagnosis, I was put into a hospital, and I gave up on life, mostly. It was hopeless. It was desperate in the hospital — my diagnosis was hopeless, and people didn’t think I would get better. I didn’t have anything to live for. It was a horrible time. I thought the best thing was if I’m not here anymore, it would just make more sense. If I weren’t here, then I wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. And I believed my family would suffer less because I wouldn’t be a burden on them anymore. I think the best thing was not to exist.

It’s terrible. I want to focus on what happened afterwards because you went into treatment. Now you have been functional for a decade or so...

It’s been a roller coaster. After I was diagnosed, I didn’t talk. I didn’t speak for the first five years because I was embarrassed. I didn’t know how to talk about it. I didn’t have the language, I couldn’t find the words, I didn’t know who to talk to, and I couldn’t speak to my family. I was too embarrassed. This went on for five years, and it was horrible. I come from a Jewish community, and no one talked about it. No one talks about mental health. So I felt like an alien, and I struggled a lot during that time. I didn’t work correctly, I lost a lot of confidence, and I became very anxious and isolated. It was an extraordinary five years. I had no purpose, no direction.

How did it end?

It ended when I had enough of not talking, of hiding and isolating myself. I had enough of it. I started talking on my phone and made videos. I found it too difficult to sit with someone and talk. It was too embarrassing, so I made videos on my phone and then put it on YouTube.

Just like that?

Yes, but I didn’t do it in my name because I didn’t want my family to see it.

But was it you on the video?

It was me on the video, but I never thought that my family would find it. If you type my name in, it won’t come up because it’s in a different name. I wanted someone to hear me, relate to me and understand me. So I put it on YouTube because I thought maybe I could find someone on there. I tried it and put my video out there then people started messaging me on YouTube. People were saying “thank you” because I was sharing what I’m going through this and that I can’t talk.

There were lots of messages. So I made more videos because I just found it easier talking to the camera than talking to someone. I put more and more on YouTube. Then my family found out and found the videos. When they found them, I wanted to delete everything. But then I said to myself, “Actually, it’s a good thing because now my family knows.” I’ve never spoken to them about everything in my head. My family knows now, so it’s okay. This is good because they know. No secrets anymore. I had my mental health problems, but I was also struggling with my sexuality as well.

I come from a Jewish background in London. In my videos, I said I was gay, and my family saw, and that’s how I started talking. When I started talking, I began to accept some of what was going on, got treatment and got into a talking therapy. I started doing meditation. Meditation was amazing for me; it’s perfect. It helped me to get some peace of mind. But in the last six years, I have had four relapses, and I had to go back to the hospital. I think it was due to stress. I started talking and getting treatment, then went back into work full time.

What kind of work?

I started working in mental health charities and then that led me to speak. I did two TV documentaries in the UK that got quite a lot of exposure, and I started talking to the media in the UK. Then I got invited to speak to schools, universities, and companies around the world. It just went bigger and bigger. It was great, but I wasn’t looking after my mental health. I was neglecting it. If I don’t sleep properly, if I have insomnia or if there’s too much stress or too much alcohol, then my mental health plummets. I’ve been drinking too much, and my brain just snapped. If I become manic or paranoid or delusional again, I have to go back into the hospital, and my medication gets changed. There were periods, and there might still be periods in the future, but I feel differently now. I feel like I have some insight into the way my mind works. I have acceptance over what my mind is like. I’m more compassionate towards my mind now. I have therapy at the moment; it’s called a . It’s about building self-compassion. It’s fascinating, and it’s been beneficial for me, building up self-compassion.

So someone helps you to practice it?

My therapist has different empty chairs in the room, and he’ll tell me to move into different chairs. One chair will be my angry self, and then I’ll talk from my anger.

So you sit there and talk from that position?

Yes. Then I move into my kind self, my compassionate self, talk from that place, and try to resolve what’s going on — why I’m so angry, anxious or paranoid and what I can do to fix it. So I find it useful and exciting. It’s been a massive help.

I would like to ask you some questions as an activist. Recently, I was taking photos for an interview with . He was a consultant or first trustee for Tony Blair. He talked about his close relative who had a mental disorder which was why he also became an activist in that field. He was talking about the stigmatization of people with a mental health condition and expressed that it shouldn’t be an obstacle to getting elected in parliament while being a mental patient. What is your view on stigmatization?

I see it changing in the UK, at least. There’s still a way to go, but it’s changing. In the last two, three years, it’s changed a lot. Prince William, Prince Harry, and the young royal family are talking about it. They’ve done lots of interviews about mental health.

How did they get involved in this?

They set up the royal mental health charity called “Heads Together”. I met with and his wife, Catherine, and they’re passionate about mental health. Prince William and have talked about losing their mom, , at a young age and the impact that had on their mental health. So they’re very aware. Prince Harry also served in the army, and he has seen the effects of mental health on his colleagues: the veterans, people that come back from the military with and addiction. He’s very interested in that. Prince William has worked in a helicopter ambulance and saw suicides, people jumping off cliffs into the sea, so he became interested in suicide. That’s how they started and set up this charity in the UK. In the UK, having such a high profile people talking about mental health has reduced the stigma, but there’s still a way to go, particularly within the government. The UK government now talks about mental health, and they have made commitments to better mental health care treatment, so less stigma.

In workplaces, if someone has a broken arm, people will share and talk about it, and it won’t be judged. But if someone comes forward and says that they have a mental health issue, there is still a stigma.

The whole topic is much more complex, I believe. I have a medical background myself, yet I still am not quite sure where the limit is. You can’t say that every person with a mental health condition should be considered the same way.

The brain is so complex and is still under research. Things like cancer, we’re much more advanced in research, I think because there is better money for that (in the UK at least).

It’s also a better “brand”. If you compare cancer and schizophrenia, cancer will probably win every time. You also touched this fear of literature. Sometimes mental disorders are not stigmatized, but overvalued like the book “”, and the famous movie of the same name. People see something romantic in mental disorders, which are, in my opinion, false because there is nothing romantic about being in a delusional phase.

Not at all. My first ever connection with mental health was with that movie. When I was in school at 16, they showed us that movie one day, and it impacted me. I was struggling at that point, and when I saw that film, it scared me. It just terrified me. I would end up in a place like that, an institution, and I won’t get better. It scared me. If I see the film again, it will still get to me. I started writing poetry because it was the only way that I could communicate what was going on in my head. I wouldn’t talk, I just wrote everything. My poetry has violent imagery and is quite distressing. It’s not pleasant. That was the only way I could communicate what was going on. I read those poems back, and I hate reading them because they’re tough to read. I see how much distress I was in, but I put them out there because I wanted to make people understand what I was going through.

What was the reaction?

The poetry, as I said, is quite violent and it talks about death and self-harm, so it’s neither uplifting nor positive.

Didn’t you experience false praise because this is something produced by someone with a mental disorder?

No, people were a bit stunned by it but appreciative of the insight into the inner workings of the mind when someone is in distress. When I was growing up, I wrote a diary. I kept a diary or journal every day.

Do you still keep it?

No, not anymore. When I was growing up from the age of ten until my early twenties, I kept a diary every day. So in my book, there are extracts of my diary in there. They were difficult and challenging extracts because I was distressed and scared, but I put them in there to show people the reality. I think some people are scared to approach mental health. They are scared to go there and to know the realities of it. I want people to go there and to know what it’s like to experience it. Some people can be dismissive of mental health, especially young people. Some people say it’s just part of growing up, it’s just hormones when you’re growing up, which for some people is true but for me, it wasn’t. I had a condition so in the book I put the poems and the diary extracts because even though they’re quite graphic and distressing, I want to give people a sense of the reality of what it was like, as a teenager, growing up with mental health challenges.

Did you mostly write this by yourself? I see there is a ghostwriter involved.

I did the talking, and she would write. We went through the diaries together and picked up the best bits.

Did the publisher want to contribute?

He did in the very ending. He sat down with my co-writer and talked about his experience, and it’s at the very end of the book.

So your journey started with the two of you going around, bringing your message to the audience. How did you get along?

We have a unique relationship because of how we met. We’ve known each other for five years, and when we first got together and began working, it was very intense. We’d be just travelling everywhere telling our story, and that’s when I got ill. I got ill because it was too intense having to relive my whole story and I got very stressed. It affected our relationship because there was just a lot of pressure. At the very beginning, when we started going around, we just responded when someone would say, “Come and give a talk here.” We just took everything that was coming our way, but both of us burnt out because it was too much.

Didn’t you have a producer?

Not at first because it was just the two of us. Then in the last year and a half, we had to get people to manage our diary, our travels, where are we going, and what we’re doing because we would get requests to come into a school and sort out the mental health of that school. Then we’d get an invitation to go into a big organization like Barclays to talk to hundreds of staff, talk to the managers and come up with a strategy. It was just a constant thing. I always say “yes” to people because I don’t like saying “no”. So, in the beginning, it was, “Yes, we’ll do that.”

We burnt out and exhausted ourselves. Both of us got stressed, exhausted, and it affected our relationship when that happened because we were just so tired. It was tiring at first just going around everywhere, especially all the travelling — Scotland today and Wales the next day, and then hundreds of miles on trains. We were on trains all the time, just travelling and sharing our story. It was tough.

It’s different now because we’ve got people doing our diaries and managing expectations, but at first, it was tough. Neil and I said to each other that we have different passions. My passion is young people, schools, colleges and universities. Neil told me that his passion is organizations and workplaces. So we said we’ll support each other in our passions. He’ll support me going into schools, and I’ll support him going into workplaces. We still work together, but we also have different focuses now.

Is this “#RandomActOfKindness” the title for your presentation?

The title of our presentation is “The Journey to Hope and Recovery”. “#RandomActOfKindness” was Neil’s thing because of what he did on the bridge. He had a massive impact on me. For him, it was a random act of kindness, but for me, it was more.

What is your view on religion?

When I was growing up, I was influenced by my religion. I went to Sunday school, I went to a Jewish secondary school, and I was very influenced by it and what was being said to me. When I was 10, I started to hear what I thought was an angel talking to me. I would pray to God every day and every night. But then it became difficult when I was 16 because of my sexuality. There was a significant conflict, so I found that difficult. When I became ill and was diagnosed when I was 20, I lost my relationship with God and my faith. I was really angry. When I was 20, I blamed God and my faith. I was mad at everything. But then I reconnected with my faith in my mid-twenties when I started talking and started accepting what was going on. When I accepted my mental health and sexuality, I was able to reconnect with my faith. Now I do a lot of work in the Jewish community in London, in synagogues and Jewish schools in mental health. It is a big issue in any community. We do a lot of work, and it’s very different now. I have reconnected with my faith. Spirituality is essential to me.

What is your view on random and predetermined events in our lives?

When I went to the bridge, Neil walked past and stopped to have that conversation. People often say he’s a guardian angel. It was meant to happen that way. The impact that we’ve had on other people, people would always say to us after our talks, “This was meant to happen”. I feel much more trusting in things now. I believe things are meant to happen the way they’re meant to happen. When I have my relapses, when I get ill, I feel like that’s the way it’s meant to be because I learn something every time. I’m always learning. Even when I get ill, I learn something new about myself, about how my mind works, about my challenges. I feel accepted. I feel grateful now. When I was ill, I couldn’t work properly. When I started my first full-time job, I was so happy. On the way to work on the train, I felt so amazing. I feel very grateful to be alive and to do the things that I get to do.

The opportunity to be here in is amazing. I am in touch with my spirituality, and I do a lot of gratitude meditation, being grateful for my mind, being grateful for my past, and everything is the way it should have been. I have a different relationship with life now if that makes sense. It makes me sad, though because we see a lot of suffering in the work that we do. We work in prisons and hospitals, and there are a lot of people that suffer, and it makes me sad that there’s so much suffering. I see more and more in society. In the UK, I see more and more tension, unhappiness and negativity. We have Brexit. There are so many conflicts, and it makes me sad, but I stay positive. I’m very optimistic now, so I try to find the positives in everything and accept how things are.

After an exhausting day of travelling, you still look really good. How do you manage to do that? Is that normal or are you now in a manic phase?

I’m very lucky. I have a lot of energy. I think it’s my attitude towards things. When I was a teenager, in my diaries, I used to write about how I was very negative, very downcast, and very melancholic all the time. I would always see the worst in things, and I would have no energy and feel just very flat. Even in my early twenties, there was flatness. Everything was dull and bleak. I think it’s because I’m able to talk and be honest now. I don’t hide anymore, and I don’t have any secrets. I think when I had secrets, there was so much weight on my shoulders. I had so much baggage that I carried around about being gay and having the mental health issues that would wear me down. But now I feel so light because I don’t have any more secrets. When I talk to people wherever we go, people come up to me at the end of our talks, and they say, “No one knows this, but I’ve got depression”, or, “I’ve got schizophrenia, and I can’t tell anyone at work”. Then I feel fortunate because I don’t have that. I’m open and honest, and I feel like I have a lot of motivation and energy.

I guess it’s like physical training where you need to practice every day. How much time and effort does it take?

It’s constant. I try to set aside time to do meditation every day, every morning, every evening. 15-20 minutes in the morning and at night. But it’s not just that. It needs to be throughout the day. So sitting here, being very aware of my environment, my body, how it feels and how my mind is, I feel very positive, energetic and happy right now. When I’m feeling very tired or down or being accepting and compassionate — not just during my meditation in the morning and the evening but throughout the day — sometimes I catch myself and beat myself up for something. Maybe I was late to a meeting, and I think, “You let people down, it’s bad.” Then I catch myself and say, “No, it is okay. Don’t beat yourself up” and “Be kind to yourself”. It’s something I have to tell myself always. When I look at myself in the mirror, in the bathroom, washing my hands after I go to the toilet, I catch myself and go, “Okay, it’s fine. You’re doing the best that you can.”

There are kindness and acceptance. The awareness, I think, is critical. When you feel down, you want to get rid of that feeling, you wish to get rid of it, and that makes it worse. When I feel down, when I have a terrible day, I’m like, “Okay, I’m having a bad day, and this is how it is.” This mindfulness, acceptance and non-judgment are essential. We continuously judge — ourselves, other people — so I try and be very conscious of the judgments I’ve put on myself and things around me. And I think that makes a difference, just being conscious of it because you get into patterns. People get into habits without realizing it. I see it in my family and friends. I see the patterns my family gets into — anger, bitterness and conflict. I try to take a step back and try to be very aware of everything.

That’s very easy to say but not easy to implement in your daily life.

No, it isn’t, but you can’t do it in every thought. We think automatically. We can’t be aware of every single thought. But the more that you practice mindfulness. There’s someone called, ; I don’t know if you’ve heard of her, she’s all about positive self-talk. If we just set aside 10 minutes every day to talk to our sub-consciousness positively, “I am talented. I am creative. I am kind” if we do that just for 10 minutes every day, it filters through. It doesn’t just take 10 minutes, and then that’s it. You have to practice it. The brain is a muscle. The fantastic thing with mindfulness is that research has shown the difference that happens in the brain over time if you practice mindfulness. Science shows that there’s evidence.

I bet there is a lot of data on that now. I think it’s a significant thing that you’re doing. I’m happy to listen to you, and you’re inspiring other people and me. I had some thoughts about it, but after this conversation, you have just exceeded my expectations.

Thank you. I think in the UK with Brexit or in the US with Trump there’s so much division. I hear it from people when I’m on the train, or when I’m reading the paper, in the media. I try not to read newspapers or watch too much news because everything brings you down. It’s not the fault of the journalists because it’s all habit. We’ve all gone into this habit of negativity, division and conflict, and it’s just become habits. We were talking about Brexit in the car. We were discussing it, and we’re saying, “Let’s look at the positives.” We were talking about how Norway is not part of the EU, but it is still thriving. I see there’s a lot of fear and unrest.

Then again, if you don’t dive into that confrontation and upset whatever side you take, you can find things to focus on in life. Humans are good at adaptation.

Yes, we are. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for how we could adapt to things. I said I meet a lot of people who struggle and suffer and I talk to them about strength because people say to me, “I’m not strong enough” or “I don’t have it inside me”. I know from my own experience that everything is internal, it’s all inside. I guess it’s all in the learning. I’m always trying to learn something new. There is still so much to learn and understand — about myself, about people. I think the awareness and just being open and nonjudgmental make such a big difference.