By Dina Al Qassar, NAMI Intern
A few years ago he was just a young man battling schizoaffective disorder on his own. Now, at the age of 26, he’s one of England’s biggest advocates when it comes to mental illness awareness.
Jonny Benjamin’s journey with mental illness started when he was around 10 years old and started hearing a voice inside his head.
“I heard the voice of an angel, but I thought it was normal,” said Benjamin. At the same time he also believed that he was in his own version of the Truman Show and was being videotaped 24 hours a day. Again, he thought this is what everyone experienced.
This continued until he turned 16, and began experiencing pangs of depression, and the voice inside his head changed to that of a devil. A year after the voice changed, he began to feel suicidal and decided to see a psychologist, but eventually decided to try to work through his problems on his own.
“I just kind of decided to manage it on my own really. I thought it would pass,” he believed. At 18, he went to college in the hopes that it was just a passing phase, but his symptoms kept getting worse. He went to see another doctor and told them that he was feeling very low and suicidal. He was rotated from one antidepressant to another but nothing changed.
He didn’t realize that the voices were a symptom and only mentioned his low moods when speaking to the doctors. “I wasn’t even aware that I was unwell, I never had mental health education in school and thought everyone has a voice in their head, I didn’t know that I had schizophrenia,” said Benjamin.
Two years later, Benjamin had a massive breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital where he was finally diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. Although finally properly diagnosed, it was during his treatment there that he attempted suicide for the first time.
“I ran away from the hospital and I went to a bridge, but then ‘Mike’ intervened and from that moment my life changed,” said Benjamin.
When ‘Mike’ saw Benjamin, he recognized that he was obviously very distressed but he managed to speak to him and calm him down. He asked him if he wanted to go get some coffee and sit down to talk it over.
“At that moment,” said Benjamin, “I felt that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, that maybe I could get better. This total stranger, a young guy like me, was willing to help me and talk it over; maybe it could get better. It was amazing and it changed my actions that day; it gave me hope that one day I could overcome my troubles.”
After that night on the bridge Benjamin went back to the hospital, but he never got a chance to thank “Mike.” Six years later, Benjamin launched a nationwide campaign called 'Finding Mike' to locate the man that has helped him that night.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, after only a few months he was finally reunited with the man who saved his life. Mike, who turned out to be Neil Laybourn, was thrilled and taken back by the reunion.
Benjamin was thrilled to be reunited with Laybourn and provided the opportunity to thank him properly. As an added benefit, he hoped that the campaign could help raise awareness about suicide and suicide intervention. “I did this campaign in order to inspire people and to show them that there is hope and that it’s OK to have suicidal thoughts and feel unwell, it’s not wrong to feel that way. I wanted to show them that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel, that you can overcome these feelings by talking about them,” said Benjamin.
But talking about his illness was a challenge for Benjamin at first. After hearing his friend talk about his heart attack and experience with heart disease, he realized that he didn’t feel like he could talk about his mental illness in the same way. But if he wanted to get better, he was going to have to.
He made a video of himself, so he didn’t have to speak to anyone directly at first. He found it liberating. To be able to speak without fearing judgment or stigmatization felt incredible. So he decided to put it online to see if anyone had a similar experience. “I was surprised by the responses I got to that first video, so I decided to continue making them because I could see that it was helping others as much as it was helping me,” said Benjamin.
He started a YouTube channel in 2010 and now has over 4,400 subscribers.
Creating the videos and sharing with others has helped Benjamin significantly during his recovery journey but there have been other things that helped him as well, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness and working.
Benjamin is now working on a movie about his search for 'Mike' that is set to be released on May 29. He hopes that his work will help youngsters and adults alike by providing education and breaking down the stigma of mental illness.
“Part of my problem is that I didn’t know I had an illness. I thought hearing voices was normal that everyone had a voice in their head,” said Benjamin. “I want to educate young people in school and make them aware of these issues, so that they can seek the help that they need.”
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