Neil came to Vilnius in September, 2019 on invitation by a local literary festival “Open Books”. He took part in the show of book “Stranger on the Bridge”, because he was the Stranger. Ignas interviewed him on camera in the TV studio.


How would you introduce yourself?

I’m Neil Laybourn from England. I live in near London. I’m a father, a husband, and I run business in the field of mental health. I am a mental health campaigner.

It all started quite unexpectedly for you, as far as I know. Can you tell more about that episode?

I was about 24 years old in 2007, just started working in London as a personal trainer. I was working for a big company, Virgin.

It was a freezing Monday morning. I got the train into probably one of the busiest train stations in London, which is Waterloo. And I came out of the train station for work. I’ve to walk over bustling . And that’s when I see a guy who’s sitting on the side of the bridge.

Waterloo Bridge has white railings. He was sitting on top, with his feet over the side. I’m getting closer. And I can see he’s just in a t-shirt—he’s shivering, freezing and looking out over the . There are lots of people. There are lots of buses, and there are lots of pedestrians, cyclists, taxis, many things happening. Everybody can see it but walk past. But this one guy is sitting still.

I nearly walked past as well, being honest. He was a young guy and a similar age. I said, “Hi, mate. Why are you sitting on a bridge?” He wasn’t looking at me. He was facing out over the River Thames. I said, “Hi, why are you sitting on a bridge?” And he started talking to me that he was about to jump off. I asked, “Why do you want to jump off?” He replied, “I’m going to die today.” He said, “I’m going to die. I’m going to take my life.”

I can’t remember the exact words he said. We had a conversation about it. That’s how my journey began in mental health. We all have a journey. Maybe we don’t know we have our mental health. Maybe we do. But that’s where the seed for my career in mental health began in 2008 on the 14th of January.

Were you in a hurry to do work that morning?

No, no. I had to be on time, but I wasn’t in a hurry.

Were you walking slower, more slowly than other pedestrians on the bridge?

No, I was in with the crowd and just walking.

Did you see him from far ahead?

When you are on to Waterloo Bridge, you can see almost straight away. You’re walking on Waterloo Bridge 20, 30 yards, and then you see the view. And Jonny sitting there interrupted the view. Pretty much straight away.

Can you remember your thoughts at that time? Would you recreate that episode in your head?

Almost instantly, I remember thinking, “I’m going to interact.” I was already half made up, 50-50. Some people might think, “Oh, that’s strange,” but I was already thinking about the interaction straightaway. And then as I was getting closer, closer, closer, 60-40, 70-30 and then he’s now 10 yards away. And now it’s like a hundred percent.

There was probably some percentage of doubt present.

Yes, because of any situation, whether it’s extreme or not, you can always second guess. And your heart rate is like this [imitates sound]. It wasn’t dangerous. There was no danger there. But it’s exciting that you’re about to do something that you never do.

Yes.

Yeah. Your heart’s doing this [imitates sound], that’s when you either go or you do it.

Could your decision be different if that would have happened on another morning? Were you in a certain mood approaching the bridge? Perhaps you were thinking, or something occurred an evening before. Was it just an ordinary flow?

I’ve been able to reflect on it more because of my career now. I realized that on any given day, you could make one decision versus another decision because we’ve been asked about the story. I’ve had to think about other potential situations. But that’s not real. That’s what happened. I’m only discussing things that never happened. Maybe I never walked by.

I guess had I woken up in a bad mood, maybe I argued. Maybe I would think, “Well, that’s your problem, and I have my problems.” People can think like this, and that’s fine. It’s no judgment. That could have happened. We’re all human.

In the morning, I was in a very relaxed, positive and in a very good mood. I think I can very much adjust my mood. If I’m in a bad mood, I can usually make it good quickly.

I think I would have always stopped. Does that make sense?

Of course.

I think still I would have stopped even if I had a really bad day or I just wanted to get to work quickly.

Do you consider yourself being a bit different from the crowd in this respect?

Well, we did a research piece with in the UK. And this was about two years ago. They did some interviews regarding the same situation about the people who had intervened with a public suicide attempt. They had to interview the person who intervened, and they had to interview people who had been suicidal and had somebody approach them.

It was very much qualitative research. We could only find maybe 12, 13 people for the interview. This is not an everyday occurrence. They did some very, very in-depth interviews. They found out certain traits of people who would intervene suicide. Also what kind of job they do — mainly service people, nurses, doctors, hospitality, personal trainers, one-to-one, people like this. Not different, but…

But you got a certain predisposition.

I know that other people may have certain predispositions. There were many other people on the bridge.

Of course. Okay, you stopped when you started a conversation with Jonny on the bridge.

Mm-hmm.

How long did it take?

It took about 20 to 25 minutes before he came off the bridge onto the pavement.

Do you remember what you were talking about?

When he came off or the whole thing?

No, no, the whole thing.

I started saying, “Tell me what’s going on. Just tell me.” And I just gave the space. If it took one minute for him to answer that was fine. We started talking about suicidal thoughts. And if he said something, I would reply, “Okay, can you tell me more?”

After 10 minutes, I was just keeping a conversation. I might tell him something about me personally and see how he reacted. The conversation moved away from him being suicidal to “now”, in the context of “why you’re on the bridge.” I never told him to come off. I never said to him, “you don’t jump, don’t do this; come down.” Because it’s his choice, it’s not my choice. I was talking and giving space.

Were you standing on the other side of the railing on the bridge? Did you need to climb?

No, no. The railing is like this height here. Jonny is sitting on the railing, and I’m standing next to him. He was on my left side.

What had happened next?

I asked Jonny to come and have a coffee after a certain amount of talking. There’s a coffee shop on the corner of Waterloo Bridge nearby. I thought that’s where we’ll go for coffee. And because we talked for a while, he agreed and climbed down from the bridge.

We were standing on the pavement side by side, talking for a couple of minutes. And we were about to go and have coffee and a police car came up beside us like really fast, just stopped [imitates sound]. Brakes came on. And the doors opened and these two police officers. They came out, and they went straight for Jonny.

Jonny was next to me. He just ran back for the bridge. But we were right next to each other. I grabbed him for about three, four seconds, and then the police took Jonny. I stepped away. The police didn’t arrest him, but they put handcuffs on him.

They handcuffed him?

Yeah, yeah. And then they opened the door, and they put Jonny in the back of the police car and closed the door. He was very very upset.

Would he have had the possibility to run away if you didn’t stop him when police came?

He could jump over the bridge maybe. He wouldn’t have been able to run far because the police would catch him. It’s a very public place.

This was the morning when you gave somebody a new life. Basically, you made a gift to Jonny.

I think that’s really in the eye of the beholder. I just held some space.

Yeah, but eventually, it happened.

It happened. Yeah.

How did this particular morning, and your actions change your life?

That morning was the catalyst for my career now and our conversation. Lots of stuff happened. Some other big events happened that I do not attribute to that day — my marriage, children, family. Things like this, I think would be there anyway. However, your career and everything you do, all the interactions are linked. That day has changed my life but not straight away because I didn’t see Jonny for six years after that.

I didn’t start thinking about suicide. I didn’t start thinking about mental health. It just happened, I processed it, put it to the back of my mind, and life was normal. But then we reunited in 2014, because of Jonny’s journey into recovery, and the social media campaign, and then we met again. That’s a definitive moment when my life began to change because of the interaction.

If it weren’t Jonny’s actions afterward, it wouldn’t have changed my life.

Well, both things did matter.

Both things mattered. Well, my job could have affected my marriage now. Things do matter for sure. If I was to continue to be a personal trainer, I would probably still be living where I am, doing what I do at the weekend. But who knows.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. What do you mean when you say your job affected your marriage?

You never know how two things are linked and how one thing affects another. I see it as two streams. I see it as a professional career, and I see my personal life.

Which job do you have in mind? Mental health campaigner, or the fitness instructor?

Fitness instructor. I moved to London and met my future wife when I was still working in a gym. And all this is going in one direction.

It would be very interesting to hear the circumstances about you meeting your wife. Was there some luck involved? Could you remember the moment when you made a decision or a move?

Actually, there’s a lot of luck. I was working in construction at the time and a friend of mine invited me for drinks on this day. I agreed. And when the day came, and I neglected, “I’m really tired. Let’s not go out.” Still, he insisted, “No, you promised me.” He said, “Come on. Come on. Come on. I’m ready. I’m ready. I want to go out. I want to go out.” I said, “No, no, no, no, no.”

Reluctantly, I went out for a drink. And then we were having a good night. We left the bar for the to one last place at about one o’clock in the morning. I went into the bar to order a drink. I looked across to the dance floor, and I thought I’m going to go and talk to that lady. And that’s how I met my wife. That was in 2006.

It all happened very quickly.

Yeah, we swapped numbers. She was in town for one night only. She worked there for university placement. But she’d finished her deployment, she’d gone back home to her family. But she came back for one night just to see her friends. She wasn’t living there. That’s bizarre as well.

The important thing about those two moments is that your choices were related to other people. People make millions of decisions. Many of them make simple decisions like buying a certain t-shirt, or taking an elevator or staircase, and so on. It’s very different when you decide to start a conversation or engage in front of a person. What do you think?

I never put that together in my head before. But yeah, it makes sense thinking about it straight away. I’d have to digest it more to think about it. Usually, significant changes or milestones in your life involve other people.

Yes, humans are social animals.

Yeah. We can sit down and be introspective and think, “Okay, I’m going to change my job.” You can sit down for half a day and make a decision, of course. But things usually influence you to do something outside of your own.

Both your choices were good ones. Story with Jonny is, of course, a moral act, and it’s indisputable. You are also a happy person in your personal life. You made the right choice. What helped you to make such a sound choice?

I believe in role models. The biggest role model in my life, I think, is my parents. In particular, from a decision-making point of view, my dad. We had a unique relationship. My parents divorced when I was 16, which is a very pivotal point in life for any person. I lived with my dad. He nurtured a lot of my decision making from a perfect point of view.

I always loved male role models like movie stars. I got into personal training because of people like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone or these sorts of actors. Powerful role models, solid male role models. They are good in decision making and things like this. Thus role modeling affected my decision making.

It’s just a general role model that fits you. It’s not a specific person whom you follow in these cases.

Sometimes, I think how my father would do this, what would he do. Maybe sometimes it’s not very conscious. You just make a decision based on yourself.

Today you are a role model for other young guys. How to be happy in life? What would be your advice?

That would be lovely. It doesn’t make a role model if you’re considering one action on the bridge. A role model is somebody who consistently has made good choices in life. They’re consistent.

We have a platform to discuss things because of our story. We have more eyes on us. I’ve met young guys, and we’ve talked about the bridge. Then the conversation moves on. I can see young guys are struggling, they’re not sure about life or something else.

I love helping people. Hopefully, they’ll remember our conversations. Is that a role model? I don’t know.

That’s good. Which illnesses do you face most often?

We talk a lot about suicide, which I don’t define as an illness. I think suicide is like a combination of many illnesses. Some defined illnesses come up, again and again, things like depression, bipolar, schizophrenia or anxiety. These are categorized illnesses, but I don’t view it strictly. I think of the human being, the person dealing with complex emotions and thoughts.

I face depression, suicidal thoughts, and feelings the most often. People attach themselves to confusion, fear and uncertainty. We all have that and can relate to this. It’s not labeled as a medical condition. However fear, uncertainty, and confusion can become a depression.

Of course.

I find suicide interesting. [Laughs] We’ve been exposed to it, and I’ve been speaking to people around the world who have been suicidal and who are trying to prevent suicide. It’s a shame if somebody doesn’t get the opportunity to overcome these feelings.

Have you been trained as a professional in mental health?

I am an instructor of Mental Health First Aid. Our friend runs “Suicide First-Aid” company and trains people all over the world. He’s one of the most amazing guys. I’ve finished his course too. Thus I’ve had some development. However, I don’t qualify as a medical professional.

What is the tipping point between “happy” and “suicidal”? We all feel good and healthy one day, but some people become troubled quite fast.

I don’t think there are any definitive answers to that. In adolescence people explore their reasons for being here or identity with themselves. Something increases intensity from the first thought of being suicidal to actively taking action. Suicidal behavior is not the act of completing suicide or trying to achieve suicide. Suicidal behavior can be self-harming or risk-taking action. This relates to the intensity of person’s feelings around suicide.

Usually suicide thoughts start early. It’s a gradual journey. If you’re a 20-year-old, everything is great in your head, there are no problems, no thoughts of suicide. It doesn’t go from that to immediately doing suicidal behavior.

Also, I understand that the first instances of feeling suicidal are the scariest because it’s unknown. People fear to talk about it. And the more of these feelings you have, the easier can be managed.

What could be proper management? How would you handle that?

That’s a good question. Statistics show that about 90% of suicides go together with mental health diagnosis like bipolar, depression, and anxiety.

These two go hand in hand. Bipolar, depression or anxiety share the same quality - inability to control emotions. These diseases are able to self-regulate your state of mind and your emotions.

Therefore, you need to practice cognitive behavioral therapy or meditation or things like this. You need those additional tools to help you manage your emotions. Thus, if you’ve never learned about these tools, then you’re very stuck. You’re quite prone to feeling suicidal if you don’t have these tools.

Again, it comes from listening to people and trying to understand this. I’ve realized now that I don’t necessarily need these external tools to regulate my emotions.

Today, I’m grateful for my negative emotion. I’m grateful to just be with it. If I’m having a bad day, I’m just kind of okay, that’s fine — “Let’s go with this.” This is related to personal chemistry. And I feel really fortunate. I had a good family. I’ve had a good upbringing. I’ve had great role models in my life.

These things are related to having good mental health and good control of your emotions. Usually, you tend to adopt a model of what you see. Again, coming back to my father, I always felt that he was very good at controlling his emotions. He was able to exude positive energy affirmation.

I will start to model my behavior on this. I’ve never felt suicidal, from what people tell me. I’d probably be very scared if I felt suicidal. I’d be very, very scared and face the same problems as anybody else.

Haven’t you ever thought of killing yourself? Just a thought…

Of course. As a thought comes in, you can’t separate yourself from thoughts. As much as you think: “Oh, what it would be to wear a blue jumper today? What would that look like on me?” I’ll be honest, I feel fortunate because of this.

Good. How much destiny is in mental health? If we take cancer, people would say it’s bad luck. You can live a healthier lifestyle, drink less, smoke less, move around more. Still, it doesn’t guarantee that you will not be exposed to cancer. We don’t know how much destiny there is, but we assume it’s all about effort. Does effort help in mental health?

The effort helps massively in mental health. The chips are stacked against you if you’ve had a childhood trauma or other unfortunate circumstances.

Bad mental health usually starts because of other external circumstances. People have no control over this. It can be a combination of the area you grew up in, what you had experienced as a child, bad role modeling, lack of love and compassion shown towards you—lots of combinations. It’s not your fault if your life is started.

Unfortunately, people often label a person and think that they can control the diagnosis. But they haven’t managed their emotions properly. They’ve neglected their mental health. That’s sad—it will contribute to stigma around mental health.

There are some good practices you can employ. People who resonate with me keep a healthy lifestyle and relationships in their life. Have you seen the movie “”? This is about a guy who went climbing somewhere around the .

I know it, but I haven’t watched it.

When you’ve convinced yourself that you’re going to die, you will think about the people and connections in your life. That’s it.

You will not think about your car, house, or your job. You will think about people. You gotta keep that strong. You have to be connected to people to stay healthy. Important, really important. “Being connected” is the number one thing that keeps you alive. Thus, a purpose is one thing. A passion for doing something is another. But being connected to a tribe is the most powerful connection you can have.

In the case of Jonny. What are your thoughts on this relationship between random luck and wilful action?

I still wonder what made Jonny change. I can’t understand it. It’s probably too much to comprehend. I’m just grateful that it happened. And if it didn’t happen, that would be good as well. That’s how I stay connected to the world. I have stayed positive because that’s all you can do to keep yourself going and functional.

I’m grateful that Jonny wanted to connect with me. And I’m grateful that we can go on this journey together. I would also be grateful if it never happened as well.

That’s interesting. You use the slogan “random act of kindness” in your campaign.

I do.

How did it emerge? Why “random”?

It’s quite commonly used. It’s an intentional act of kindness, isn’t it? It’s not random. The events are random, but the kindness always had intention behind it.

Why “Random act of kindness”? Circumstances are random. Jonny chose Waterloo Bridge. I decided to get that train at a certain time that morning. These are the random things that occured together. That’s the randomness of it. Kindness is always there, and people have it. That’s not random but not circumstances.

An intentional act of kindness in a multitude of random events. [Laughs]

Yeah, probably more accurate.

Okay, Neil, I think we’re done.

Cool.

Thank you very much.

Yeah, great. Alright.