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Jonny Benjamin: the journey to hope, recovery and beyond

Jonny Benjamin MBE shares his very personal journey to hope and recovery in this talk at University of Brighton during Mental Health Awareness Week 2019.

Jonny charts his journey with mental illness, from first seeing a psychologist at the age of 4 to being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar, at the age of 20.

He also talks about his expectations around going to university. “I thought that would solve everything,” he said. “Everyone would say to me university days are the best days of your life. I thought it would all change and get better when I went to university. I went to university and… everything came with me.”

It was at university that Jonny was hospitalised and not long after that, in January 2008, he escaped from the hospital and made his way to London’s Waterloo Bridge, prepared to take his own life.

That was until a stranger walking across the bridge saw him and talked Jonny down from the edge.

Jonny began to open up

During a long period of recovery, Jonny started to talk to family and friends to tell them about his mental health issues and that he is gay. “That was the biggest weight off my shoulders,” he said. “I didn’t have to hide anything anymore. I could just be myself. That was the real turning point for me. I started to feel more human again after that.”

He also began working with and campaigning for various mental health charities. One in particular, Rethink Mental Illness, helped him launch a search for the stranger on the bridge, in order to thank him.

The stranger turned out to be Neil Laybourn and after the pair were reunited they began sharing their inspiring story across the UK and the rest of the world. The two of them have created conferences, written books and even run marathons together in aid of mental health and suicide prevention.

Now Jonny uses various ways to manage his own mental health. It’s an ongoing process for him. He is also open about having had a few relapses over the years.

Jonny’s self-care approach

  • He takes medication
  • He has ongoing therapy
  • He uses mindfulness, which has been a massive help. “My mind can be very full and cluttered, and it can be overwhelming at times. But what mindfulness does for me is settle everything. It doesn’t necessarily turn off the thoughts and feelings, but I get some clarity and some peace of mind.”
  • He does yoga to get himself out of his head and into his body, so he is more grounded and present
  • He asks for help when he needs it
  • He has shifted his perspective. “A therapist once said to me ‘It’s not your fault, it’s the way your brain is wired’. And I’d never heard anything like that before.”
  • He no longer identifies as his mental illness. “Thinking of my mental health as something physical has helped me to talk about it. My therapist asked, ‘Why do you say, ‘I’m schizoaffective’. You would never say ‘I’m cancer. I’m heart disease’. You’re more than this diagnosis’. And it’s true. I used to think my mental health was all of me. I used to really beat myself up, growing up, for my mental health issues.”
  • He has something called CFT (compassion focused therapy), which originated in Scandinavia and is quite new to the UK. “It looks at your relationship with yourself which is so important. And treating yourself with kindness and compassion and non-judgement is really important and has helped me.”

In 2019 Jonny and Neil launched their new mental health charity, Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma, a grant-giving organisation that aims to provide mental health support to young people, their families and teachers.

Here to support you

If anything about Jonny’s story resonates with you, or if you need to talk about anything that’s getting in your way, we are here to help and support you on a successful journey through your studies. You can talk in confidence to your Student Support and Guidance Tutor (SSGT), the Student Wellbeing team or your Students’ Union.

Jonny also recommends the Hub of Hope website and app. Just type in your postcode and it brings up all your local organisations and charities that can offer support.

Jonny has also sought help on various occasions from the Samaritans.

Marianne Halavage • June 21, 2019

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