Jonny Benjamin is a 27 year old award winning mental health campaigner with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression. Six years ago Jonny, having recently been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, went to Waterloo bridge to take his life. A stranger, who he nicknamed ‘Mike’, stopped him. At the beginning of this year Jonny launched a campaign to find ‘Mike’ (whose name turned out to be Neil). We filmed his search as part of a documentary to raise awareness about suicide that came out on the 29th May. Here Jonny and Neil talk about their reunion and the making of the film.
The film captures the butterfly effect of how a simple gesture can make such a difference to so many lives.
Did you ever expect to see each other again?
N: I thought about Jonny a lot over the years but never thought I’d see him again. I couldn’t believe it when my fiancée started telling me she had seen something about Jonny on Facebook.
J: I’d always dreamed of seeing Neil again to be able to say thank you. He had such a massive impact on me, but when I launched the campaign it was more to raise awareness of suicide, I didn’t actually think I’d find him.
What’s it like to be reunited?
N: It’s great to see Jonny again and see him doing so well. It’s weird because it’s like we are old friends, we’re very similar. I’m Batman and he’s Robin. Maybe we were always meant to be in each other’s lives!
J: It’s amazing. We’ve already been out together a few times and I consider Neil a friend. I feel like I can talk to him about anything. I hope we’ll always be in each other lives, I think we will.
How does it feel now looking back on that day?
N: I guess it’s different now. At the time I remember going back into work and being quite shaken up. I told my loved ones about it and brought it up from time to time. Jonny was always at the back of my mind so I’m so pleased he has done so well. I’m really proud to have worked with him and the charity to raise awareness on this subject. It’s interesting that since the campaign people have confided in me about their problems with mental illness. A good friend told me he had felt suicidal, I had no idea. It’s so common. It’s like mental illness is this big secret we are all keeping.
J: The 14th January 2008 was such a dark day for me, the worst day in my life, but now i see it as a real turning point. So many positive things have come out of that day. For a start I’ve learnt to manage my condition through things like Mindfulness and CBT, become a mental health campaigner, and as a result been able to get people thinking and talking about mental illness. Having people say they’ve gone and got help after seeing me talk about my experiences is really rewarding. For me, this is the consequence of my encounter with Neil on the bridge. I can never truly express how grateful I am to Neil for his actions that day.
What was it like having your search/ the reunion filmed?
N: Pretty weird! I didn’t mind because I knew that the film being made was really important, but being surrounded by cameras when you’re meeting someone for the first time is quite intimidating.
J: I think we were both very aware they were there but after a while you start to forget. It was such a huge moment for me that the cameras were the least of my worries. It’s strange having your life and your deepest worries exposed for everyone to see but I hope it’s going to help a lot of people, so it’s worth it.
Neil: Did you have any idea of the impact you would have that day? As a consequence of your actions millions of people around the world are been affected.
It kinda blows my mind. I don’t really think about it. Even now I haven’t really looked at all the media coverage etc. Jonny is the hero in all of this, not me. I just had a conversation.
Neil: Have you saved anyone since or would you do it again?
Of course! But I didn’t really save Jonny, I just stopped to find out what was going on and tried to listen to him. It was his decision. I’m quite a curious person by nature and like helping people so that’s why I stopped. Just the other day I tried to help two people who were arguing on the street, I don’t think they listened though!
Neil: Has anyone ever ‘saved’ you?
Ha ha, not really! Although when I was five years old I fell into a lake on a family holiday. I remember the feeling of drowning and knew I was going to die. A man dived into the water and pulled me out. I thought it was my dad but it turned out to be a stranger. Maybe that affected me psychologically in some way, ha ha, I don’t know!
What would you say to other people out there in a similar position?
N: It’s not that hard to talk to people. Just open up a conversation, ask questions and listen, that’s all people really need.
J: For me having someone listen to me, without judgement, was the catalyst to my recovery. Just being able to say the words ‘I feel suicidal’ (which is actually a common and very human experience), lead to me getting help. I would tell people to open up to their friends and family if they can, or speak to their GP or a mental health organisation. There is so much support out there. The most important thing is to talk. And in return people need to hear words of hope and recovery-this is the key message of this film.
Jonny: What’s your favourite scene in the film?
That’s such a tough one. All of the scenes where I’m meeting with people along the way to find Neil I really enjoy watching. I was very lucky to meet with some inspiring individuals and have some very frank and open discussions. Ultimately my favourite scene has to be the reunion with Neil- it really was one of the happiest days of my life!
Jonny: What’s your least favourite scene in the film?
I didn’t realise quite how tough it would be watching myself on screen. I’m used to making films because of my YouTube vlogs, but I never watch them back once I’ve shot them!! I’m my own worst enemy, as many of us are, and extremely critical of myself. It’s especially tough to see yourself talking about such a difficult subject though. My least favourite scene is when I’m going through the photos of all the ‘Mikes’ that came forward after launching the campaign. I found myself entering a precarious state of mind I’ve not been in for some time. It’s difficult to watch, I don’t recognise myself in that scene.
Jonny: Has there been an anticlimax having found Mike?
Not really-even today on social media people are still talking about and sharing the campaign. The success of it and what it’s achieved is still sinking in! Also, there’s the film release to look forward to. It was very surreal being the centre of attention during the campaign and then that coming to a sudden end, but to know it’s had such an impact on people, and to have gained a good friend in Neil, feels so great.
Jonny: How do you look after yourself and create boundaries as the demands of your role as an ambassador for mental health, role model, presenter, inspiration to others, and general celebrity increase!?
I find this difficult at times. If I could, I would be mental health campaigning 24/7. I get a lot of people contact me, particularly through social media, who are struggling and looking for support and advice. The urge is to do whatever I can help to them. I’m still trying to find a balance with looking after my own mental health. I try and take time aside every day for this-perhaps it’s practicing mindfulness or working through challenging, intrusive thoughts using techniques i’ve learnt in CBT. I’m always looking for different ways to try and manage my mental health. I’ve recently found yoga to be really beneficial.
Jonny: Has finding Mike spurned you on to bigger challenges? What’s next?
Absolutely. There’s many things I want to do to continue educating and destigmatising mental illness and suicide. There is so much misperception out there, and as a result a lot of people are suffering. Until that changes I will keep on doing what I can to make a noise about these issues. Ultimately, I would like to see changes in the system-particularly in our schools, where I believe mental health education should be made compulsory on the curriculum, and in healthcare. I think mental healthcare needs particular reformation. Right now, I’m working with Rethink Mental Illness to plan this year’s schizophrenia awareness week and there’s lots of great ideas being discussed which is very exciting.
What do you hope the film will achieve?
N: I hope it will make people think about suicide. Lots of people walked past Jonny that day on the bridge but I don’t think it’s because they didn’t care it’s just that we’ve stopped talking to one another. People are scared. But it’s good to stop and have a chat with a stranger. We all need to do it more I think. We are need to start helping one another more.
J: Suicide takes the lives of 16 people every day in this country. And yet we don’t talk about it. That’s got to change. I really think that in part that’s why the Finding Mike campaign was shared so much; people do want to talk about it. I hope the film will go on to raise awareness still further not only about suicide but schizophrenia too.
Interview courtesy of Rethink Mental Illness
The film is released globally on the 29th of May. Watch it here
Film produced in conjunction with Postcard Productions