The Stranger On The Bridge: How One Man Helped Me Back From The Brink | SLMan

The Stranger On The Bridge: How One Man Helped Me Back From The Brink

In 2008, Jonny Benjamin went to a bridge to take his own life, but a stranger talked him down. After a nationwide campaign to #FindMike, the pair were reunited and have since started Go Beyond, a charity to help young people around the UK. Here, Jonny shares his full story with SLMan…
Photography FOTO DUETS/ISTOCK
FOTO DUETS/ISTOCK
All products on this page have been selected by our editorial team, however we may make commission on some products.

I had a happy childhood, but I always felt different to other kids at school. I was brought up in a Jewish home in northwest London – we had a typical family setup, I went to Sunday school every week and I went to a Jewish school. I was pretty influenced by my faith growing up. When I was around three, I started having problems with sleep, and became increasingly anxious and isolated. My parents realised something and was wrong and took me took the doctors. Eventually, I was referred to a child psychologist, but mental health was a big taboo while I was growing up. It wasn’t something that was talked about in my family.

When I moved to secondary school, I felt increasingly different to the other kids. I found it hard to fit in, but I was very academic so just kept my head down. Everything was okay at first, but things got difficult in my mid-teens. When I was about 15 I had really bad acne, so the doctors put me onto Roaccutane – it’s linked to depression, which I didn’t really understand at the time. I started to get really low moods, and I didn’t understand why. I was often tearful and sad without reason, but I didn’t get it, I didn’t really have anything to be sad about. On the outside I looked fine, getting on with my GCSEs and A-Levels, but on the inside, I was really struggling.

At 17 I went to see a doctor in secret because I didn’t want my parents to know what was going on. My GP referred me to CAMHS (the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service). After an assessment I saw a psychiatrist – again in secret – but the waiting list was really long, so for a long time I had to deal with everything on my own. I thought moving to university would solve my problems, but everything going on in my head came with me.

Things started to go really wrong at university. I started to misuse alcohol and I was self-harming for the first time. I was out of control, which ultimately led to a breakdown at the start of my third year. In January 2008 at 20 years old, I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Schizophrenia is like losing touch with reality, while bipolar means rapid changes in mood. At the time, I thought I was possessed. One day, I ended up in the middle of a dual carriageway and was submitted to a psychiatric ward in London. Everything came out in the open – my family found out how unwell I’d become, which was really tough. It felt like the end. It was really shocking for my friends and family, but luckily they were supportive. Still, I felt really embarrassed and ashamed at my diagnosis. I had to drop out of university. At this point, I didn’t want to talk or address it.

One day, I ended up in the middle of a dual carriageway and was submitted to a psychiatric ward in London. Everything came out in the open – my family found out how unwell I’d become, which was really tough. It felt like the end.

Things seemed to get worse and worse in hospital. When I turned 21, I ran away from the ward. I gave up. I didn’t see any way forward and thought I’d be stuck with my illness forever. I thought I’d be a burden on everyone, so I made a plan to end it all. Thankfully, when I got to the bridge and stepped over the edge, a stranger walking past came and stood next to me. He was a young guy, a few years older than me. There was something about him – I felt a connection and he listened in a way that I hadn’t been listened to before. He was calm, grounded and open. He wanted to listen and wanted me to open up. In the hospital, people didn’t have time to listen, but this guy made me feel at ease. He was so positive, “Mate, you will be all right. You will get better.” In the hospital, they told me they didn’t know what would happen because I was so unwell. With this stranger, I really believed he thought I would be okay. He managed to get me away from the edge of the bridge.

We had a really powerful conversation, and he convinced me to go for a coffee. I’d found someone I could talk to; I felt safe with him. However, we didn’t get to go for the coffee as someone had called the police. Once I’d gotten away from the edge, they charged in. I tried to run away, but was restrained and handcuffed. That was the last I saw of the stranger, at that time. I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and was taken back to the hospital.

For the first time I felt a little bit of hope. The man had been so positive with me about the future, which I really needed at the time. I ended up staying at the hospital for a while, and was eventually discharged. For the next six years, I worked on my mental health and focused on getting better. But I needed to resolve some of the issues from my past – I was struggling with my sexuality and what that meant growing up Jewish. I needed to resolve that and come out as gay, plus address my own mental health, and not to hide it anymore. It wasn’t a quick solution, but medication and therapy got me back on track. It took about six years to get to a point where I was ready to start talking.

In 2014 I launched a campaign to find the stranger on the bridge. I wasn’t 100% sure of his name. I remembered parts of our conversation, and I thought his name was Mike. I wanted to raise awareness for mental health, and suicide in particular, which is such a difficult thing to address, particularly for men. I launched the #FindMike campaign to try and find him, but I wasn’t sure if it was going to reach him. He could have been anywhere. However, I thought if the campaign reached someone else and helped them, that alone would be worth it.

We didn’t know how people were going to respond. Social media can be difficult at times, but everyone seemed really positive and wanted to get behind the search. I received messages from people around the world who shared their experiences – they’d either been in my position or had talked someone else out of suicide. There were also some heart-breaking stories, including lots of people who came forward to say they’d lost brothers, sons or fathers. Three quarters of all suicides in the UK are men. It was really moving.

Johnny And Neil Running The London Marathon

Amazingly, the man on the bridge came forward. His wife spotted the post from the campaign. I found out his name was Neil. It’s difficult to put into words how it felt being reunited, getting to sit down with him and say thank you, and for him to see the progress I’d made. It was such a powerful and emotional moment for both of us. Neil and I are friends to this day. When we were reunited, he was working as a personal trainer, but he decided to leave that behind and come into the world of mental health. His big passion is mental health in the workplace, while mine lies with the youth.

In 2018 we set up a mental health charity called Go Beyond. We ran the London Marathon together for Sienna mental health charity, and pre-Covid we were lucky enough to travel the world, giving talks about our experience in a range of places. I’m really lucky to have that support and friendship from Neil to this day.

It hasn’t been smooth sailing over the past few years. I think that’s something important to highlight, because many people assume I’ve had a happy ending since coming out of hospital. But mental health doesn’t work like that – I’ve been back in hospital a few times over the last few years. Sometimes, I hadn’t been looking after my mental health properly. I now know that I need to stick with the medication and therapy. Mindfulness is important for me, too, as is talking. I need to keep talking. I should say it’s been hard on Neil too – taking sick leave and dropping out of work at times has been difficult for him. There have been lots of ups, but we’ve also had some downs.

It was a total shock receiving an MBE a few years ago. When I opened that envelope, I was totally overwhelmed. Unfortunately, I had a relapse a week before I was meant to go to Buckingham Palace. I didn’t think I was going to make it, but I managed to pull through and receive the MBE from Prince William. That was such a special moment for me, my family, and Neil.

Right now, our charity is focusing on youth mental health. We provide grants to schools, colleges and universities for various mental health initiatives. We’re overwhelmed with demand for funding as it’s been an incredibly difficult time since the start of the pandemic. It’s something I’m really concerned about. Lots of people’s mental health has deteriorated over the last couple of years, but it’s hit children and young people especially hard. We’re seeing a huge rise in anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and trauma. I don’t think we as a society are addressing it properly. There’s been a lot of focus on physical health, but not on mental health. Don’t get me wrong, it’s being spoken about more than ever, but there’s not enough support or funding. I fear it’s getting worse. Every day, we get another school emailing us for support. We really need to start doing so much more to address it.

Amazingly, the man on the bridge came forward. His wife spotted the post from the campaign. I found out his name was Neil. It’s difficult to put into words how it felt being reunited, getting to sit down with him and say thank you, and for him to see the progress I’d made. It was such a powerful and emotional moment for both of us.

There’s still a huge stigma surrounding the more ‘severe’ mental health issues. Our charity works with children who have been diagnosed with issues like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, as well as borderline personality disorder, which seems to be becoming more prevalent. It’s not talked about enough and there’s not enough understanding, compared to anxiety and depression which people are generally more comfortable to talk about. There’s still a long way to go.

In an ideal world, there needs to be more funding for a start. The waiting lists in this country for assessments or cognitive behavioural therapy are so long. The government keeps talking about mental health, but we desperately need more funding – there have been so many cuts to mental health services over the last decade. Ultimately, we need to ringfence specific funding for it, which has never actually happened.

If you have a family member or friend who might need help, go to a GP first. However, that’s not always easy – getting an appointment can be a difficult, and being listened to can be challenging. Therefore, reaching out for other support is key. There are many mental health charities who can help. Calm and Mind are great, as is Humen, which does great work in the men’s mental health space. Andy’s Man Club is also about men supporting other men – we know that peer support can be so valuable, so this is a great resource to utilise. Rethink has regional branches around the country which can offer local support, while Hub of Hope lists the local support services around you. Utilise these charities and services while the NHS is stretched. 

For someone to feel confident to talk, you have to know how to listen. Try not to judge or even comment too much – let them talk and really listen to everything they say. ‘Active listening’ is when you allow someone to talk without interrupting. It’s so powerful. Lots of people are worried about someone right now, and it can be really tough. If you’re supporting someone going through a difficult time, it can be hard to know what to say, and sometimes not everyone is ready to receive help or to talk. But don’t give up. There’s a great campaign called Ask Twice. Don’t be afraid to pry too much or ask questions – particularly when it comes to boys and men. Don’t be afraid to ask twice, ask again and say, “Look mate, are you sure you’re okay?” It could ultimately save someone’s life.

If you’re worried about someone or looking for more information on mental health services, visit NHS.uk.

For more information about Go Beyond, visit JonnyBenjamin.co.uk

DISCLAIMER: We endeavour to always credit the correct original source of every image we use. If you think a credit may be incorrect, please contact us at [email protected].

You are not seeing this website as it was intended. Please try loading it in an up to date web browser.