Jonny Benjamin: I had to 'find Mike', the man who saved me

The mental health campaigner recalls how nervous he was to meet the stranger who saved his life


What do you say to the stranger who saved your life? That's the question that Jonny Benjamin had to grapple with when he came face to face with the man who six years earlier had talked him down from a ledge, stopping him from plunging to a certain and intentional death in the Thames.

"I was so nervous," recalls Benjamin. "At first I couldn't process it. It was only when we began chatting that suddenly it all came back to me. In my mind I could see it happening. I'd blocked it out for so long."

At the time Benjamin, who had shortly before been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, having not realised that the voices he'd been hearing for a decade were not real, didn't get to thank the man. "Once he convinced me to come over the side to safety, the police and an ambulance took me away, and I never saw him again. From that day on I wanted to thank him."

Last year, he got to. Their reunion is captured in a new Channel 4 documentary following Benjamin's #FindMike campaign.

The campaign, which started on social media and the JC, saw him team up with the charity Rethink to search for ''Mike'' and focus attention on the prevalence of mental health.

It made headlines everywhere from Korea to Mexico, prompted inquiries for his ''life rights'' from Paramount and reached more than 300 million people.

Benjamin, a chatty, charismatic 28-year-old from Stanmore, with supportive family and friends, may seem an unexpected poster boy for this issue. But as he says, statistics suggest a quarter of us will experience a mental health problem; it is not something that happens to other people.

After making his story public, he was inundated with messages from people sharing their mental health stories. A former JFS classmate, someone he sat next to in lessons, got in touch. They'd gone through something similar at school.

"We'd both been sitting there going through it, yet it was unspoken," he says. "That's what really amazed me - how many people told me about their personal experience or that they knew a family member who had been through it."

He was apprehensive before the campaign launched, aware he was leaving himself vulnerable."I knew it would either go one of two ways. People would get on board or there would be a lot of criticism." Yet the reaction - even among the notoriously feral users of social media - was overwhelmingly positive. For Benjamin himself, telling his story was cathartic. "There were no more secrets any more, everything was out in the open."

The Jewish community has been highly supportive, but, as in the wider population, he thinks awareness of mental-health issues could be improved. "Things are getting better,"he says, highlighting that current JFS pupils do hear from speakers about these issues. "But we've still got some way to go, we need to do mental health the same as we do physical health." A permanent ambassador for Rethink, he is effusive in his praise for the Jewish mental health charity JAMI. "They are very much getting out there now and reaching people, which is fantastic," he says. "They deserve support from the community."

With the election imminent, he is studiously non-partisan, although he highlights the Liberal Democrats' commitments on mental health spending. But he is delighted with how much focus there has been on this in the campaign. "I'm hearing it a lot more in debates and party broadcasts. It's definitely on the agenda now, which it needs to be," he says. Still, more than rhetoric is needed; he points to severe cuts to the mental health system in the last few years.

The problem, Benjamin says, is waiting times for treatment. "If you're in a really bad place you can't wait years to start therapy, and yet that's what happening at the moment." He also wants more focus on mental health in the curriculum, and the plan is that the documentary will be used as a resource to go into schools with.

For while the search for ''Mike''was what lit up social media, the campaign was always about raising awareness, hence why it was filmed. In truth, he never expected to find ''Mike'', despite spending a fortnight handing out flyers on the very same bridge he once planned to jump off, and doing endless media interviews.

"I was sceptical, I thought it really wasn't about finding him. Then when I saw it trending on Twitter, I thought maybe there's a chance, and then we had all these people coming forward."

In total, 38 people got in touch with a lead. "Most had actually stopped someone. I called them the silent heroes, these people out there all the time stopping someone from taking their life."

The false leads were gutting. "Every time an email comes through, you get your hopes up, this is going to be him. As the campaign went along, I invested more and more into it because so many others were invested in it."

Just when Benjamin thought it was over, a man called Neil Laybourn got in touch, prompted by his fiancée spotting the story on Facebook. The two are still close; last year they flew to Dallas together for a TV interview. Meeting his''Mike'' was a chance to show the impact he'd had. "I wanted him to see me in a different place. That's why I waited so long to find him."

The documentary ends on their reunion; a happily ever after. For Benjamin, who is recovering from a relapse late last year, there is no such neat finale. "This condition is going to be there for life. It's about not letting it defeat you and controlling how much it takes over."

But when he relapsed this time, he had far more support. Crucially, he says, he didn't close himself off. And if there's any message he wants to get through, it's that one.

"It is still a taboo," says Benjamin. "People say 'How are you?' every day, and we normally reply 'I'm ok, I'm fine'. But really a lot of us are not, and we don't have that chance to express how we're feeling because we're embarrassed or feel we are going to be judged. Mental health affects everyone and if we were all more open, it could really change things."

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