#MHAW: Jonny Benjamin, mental health campaigner, on raising awareness and initiating change
Jonny Benjamin’s journey through the workings of the mind has been profound. This is the man who, in January 2008, found himself standing on London’s Waterloo Bridge contemplating ending his own life. But for the words of passer-by Neil Laybourn, the 31-year-old may not now have risen to become one of the UK’s most influential mental health campaigners.
As part of Mental Health Awareness Week this year (13-19 May) we are talking Jonny Benjamin, mental health campaigner about how he deals with talking about mental health every day, what he feels we can do to raise awareness of mental health issues in young people, and offers advice on how families and friends can help those close to them with their mental health.
Where did you find the strength and the courage to talk about your own struggles with mental health?
Well, I guess talking and sharing is always one of the very best therapies. There are lots of people like me and we are in a much better era now where these are things that can be discussed.
Even very recently, I have come out of hospital after a short episode that I had. I decided a long time ago to be very open about these things and to talk about the realities of mental health and the issues surrounding it, because if I’m not then how can I expect others to be?
Sometimes it can be difficult to support others while dealing with one’s own mental health. Has your own mental health been impacted by your mental health campaign?
Most definitely. I hear quite a lot of difficult stories about people who are really ill or have taken their own lives and I am quite sensitive, and I carry them on my shoulders. Those things sometimes stay in my mind and I find some of the things that people say difficult to process. I have a therapist and I see them weekly, I have a psychiatrist, I have my friends and family to talk to. A lot of mental health support comes down to joining people together because it is hard when you are doing it on your own.
Do you have any advice for people on how to support a friend or family member who is struggling with their mental health?
To be patient. I think friends and family members want a quick fix and for that person to open up straight away. It takes time and I would encourage them to be patient but also persistent. When you see them, maybe just go for a walk with them and bring it up naturally and gently.
Suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 years in England and Wales. Why do you think that is and how do you think we can make a change to this awful statistic?
We can change that, but it needs to be done at a young age in school. We need to encourage boys to be open with how they are feeling and to talk and ask for help from a young age. The whole ClassDojo mindfulness initiative is starting in classrooms and I think that is the right way. The younger we reach them and tell them that it’s okay, the more chance we have. It should feel natural for kids to want to talk about their feelings.
How do you find balance in your day to day life?
I have an app that offers me a number of meditations and relaxations, and helps with sleep. I also do Yoga and walk a lot too. Sometimes I sit down and try to meditate but I can’t, my head is just too busy. So instead, I will do a walking meditation and I am tuning into my footsteps and everything that I am seeing, all of my senses – what I am hearing, what I am smelling. It just calms everything and helps me get back in touch with my body and the present moment.
I have had a few relapses and I know my triggers. If I have two nights in a row of bad sleep or insomnia, my mind just really begins to spiral out of control.
Alcohol is another one which is bad so I try to be careful with my alcohol intake. Another one is stress. I used to do was just plough on with work, even if I was stressed but I now know I have to take a step back.
Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma is a new charity created by Jonny Benjamin MBE and Neil Laybourn. Set up to help young people, their families and educators, it provides the help currently lacking in mental health provision by giving grants to small organisations and individuals who do amazing mental health related work in their community. To learn more visit beyondshamebeyondstigma.co.uk