Mental Health and Suicide: Q&A with Jonny Benjamin
Suicide. The biggest killer of middle aged men, and of new mums. And now suicide amongst teenagers is at its highest rate in 14 years, with more than 4 young people per week taking their own lives. The problem is even worse amongst young women in their early twenties, and it’s estimated that most of the mental health issues leading to self harm have begun before the age of 14. One of the common themes I see discussed by mental health campaigners is that we just don’t talk enough about mental health, self-harm and suicide enough, that people feel isolated, which only augments the problem. Mother of teenagers Suzanne agrees:
It’s a minefield as a parent and such a lonely path to walk. It’s very difficult to distinguish between normal teenage behaviour and a mental illness, When my daughter began self harming by restricting her food intake and cutting, people told me that she would probably grow out of it and that many teenagers go through this ‘phase’. Whilst that can be true, my gut instinct said otherwise.
If you’re worried about your child or just want to be aware of potential problems, this interview with Jonny Benjamin, The Stranger on the Bridge, is both a fascinating insight, and a practical resource to help you spot and manage the symptoms of mental illness – hopefully before they impact too hard. Jonny’s story inspired the nation after he was talked out of taking his own life by a stranger walking past him as he stood on Waterloo Bridge, in London. In the months after that incident, and following a lifelong struggle with mental health issues, Jonny trawled the media to find the man who saved his life. Eventually he found Neil Laybourn, and together they now campaign for more awareness, support, and understanding of mental health, and how to take care of it.
Suicide: Jonny’s advice for parents
Jonny, You’ve talked about struggling with mental health from a very young age. How old were you when you first realised that what you were experiencing wasn’t normal, and how did you know? I’m thinking here of the many parents who have difficult behavioural diagnoses with their young children, and how much of an indicator that might be of future illness.
I was very young when I started experiencing my first symptoms. At the age of 4 or 5 I started seeing things and that lead to major sleeping issues for me. I was eventually taken to a child psychologist who I saw for a while. Then at the age of 10 I started hearing a voice in my head. At the time I thought it was normal and that we all heard a similar voice. When I turned 16 though I realised the voice had become much more sinister and controlling. It was then when I began to realise I had an issue. But I was much too embarrassed and ashamed to open up to anyone. Looking back I wish I would have spoken to my parents about it but I didn’t have the confidence or the language to express my distress. This plunged me into a deep depression and later resulted in my being hospitalised and sectioned.
It has been such a journey with regards to this! At first I wanted help, and at the age of 17 I first went to my GP in secret. He was great and referred me onto CAMHS. But that’s when everything went wrong. After seeing them for one appointment I didn’t hear back from them again for months despite them saying they were concerned about me and wanted to see me again as soon as possible. By the time they eventually got in touch I had lost faith in them. I then went off to University. I reached for help there too but never got the support I needed. By the time I became seriously unwell and was admitted into hospital I’d given up on the system. I took whatever help was offered to me but I had little faith that I would recover. It was only in my mid 20s when I really began to engage with help and support. Since then I have had regular engagement with psychiatrists and therapists. Now I am no longer ashamed of my mental health and accept my challenges I engage much more wholeheartedly. I think that’s made a big difference to me.
Do you think the stress of being a teenager in this generation is greater than it has been in the past, with friendship issues being acted out online, on social media, and devices meaning that it’s harder to switch off? Is there anything you think parents and/or teenagers can do to take care of their mental health before it becomes difficult to manage?
Yes, absolutely. I’m very concerned about the impact our modern world is having on our young minds. The brains we all have were not designed for the incredibly fast paced world we are now living in. We have to realise though that social media and technology are not going anywhere. They are here to stay and we must address how we use these things in a healthy way. No-one seems to want to have that conversation though. When I talk to young people about social media they say they feel frustrated that no-one wants to listen to their thoughts and feelings about things like Instagram or SnapChat. We need to give them the space and time to voice their anxieties and fears around these things instead of shutting them down and avoiding that conversation.
Are there any ‘red flags’ that might indicate to a parent that their child needs help, before a mental health issue becomes more serious?
There are various red flags including changes in appetite or sleep. Behavioural changes are also a red flag. But these could also be part of being a teenager too! I masked my mental health issues extremely well from my parents as many young people sadly often do. This is why we need to have those conversations about mental health with our children. And not just once but on a regular basis. If a young person has a physical health issue we wouldn’t hesitate to converse with them about it and the same should apply to their mental health too.
What would you say to a young person who is considering suicide, or who is self-harming?
I think it’s important to reassure them firstly. Parents can sometimes be angry or upset with their children if they have self harmed, or even attempted suicide. But we have to remember that it’s their brains that have led them to this point. We wouldn’t be angry if our children had a physical ailment, such as falling over and breaking their arm. We’d comfort and reassure them if they did this. The same must apply with young people’s mental health. There are plenty of methods to stop self harming so it’s worth engaging with organisations like YoungMinds and sitting down with your children to discuss it and come up with a plan. I know it may seem like an awkward conversation but it could make a huge difference. The biggest fear we all have is being judged. Parents must avoid doing this if possible.
What about the parents?
It was so tough for my family. They were given such little information or support. No-one knew what to say to each other. Those early days when I had just been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder aged 20 were the worst for us all. When I think back to it it’s so painful. I wish we would have known about mental health organisations like Rethink Mental Illness who offer support for the family as well as the individual. It would have stopped a lot of our suffering if we had of known about them.
There are lots of great sources of support from organisations like YoungMinds. They have a helpline for parents who may be worried about their children. They’ve also got brilliant resources around things like self-harm and eating disorders in children. My advice is to not be afraid to talk to young people about mental health. I wish an adult had spoken to me about it when I was growing up. But back then no-one did. I may not have opened up but I know it would have helped me. I think the key is patience and perseverance when someone doesn’t want to talk or get help. It took me some time for my walls to come down and to finally begin sharing my difficult thoughts and feelings. But gentle nudges helped along the way.
One day we will look after our mental health just as we do our physical health. Everyone knows that they have to brush their teeth twice a day to maintain dental hygiene. What do we do on a daily basis to look after our mental health? This is something we need to start addressing from an early age. I believe it must start in primary school. Plenty of studies have shown that introducing young people to mindfulness within primary schools has had a huge impact on their wellbeing. Some mental health issues are inevitable of course. But we tend to focus on mental health at the “crisis stage” instead of the “prevention stage.” This shift is something I am constantly pushing for.
To cope with their own fears and anxieties parents can reach out for support from charities and organisations. Many run parents groups or workshops which can be extremely useful. Communication with their children’s school, college or university is also helpful. As mentioned I think the key is reassurance when it comes to supporting a child struggling with their mental health. Patience and persistence is also required if children won’t open up or accept help at first. I think it’s also very important to talk to young people about hope and recovery. We live in a time now where lots of celebrities are speaking out about struggling with mental health. Lady Gaga, Stormzy and Adele are just a few notable names who have opened up about their mental health. It’s important for young people to have role models like them so they can see that mental illness is nothing to be feared or ashamed of, and to know that recovery is possible. I often refer people to the organisation Time To Change. On their website they have so many young people who have written blogs or made videos about their mental health. It’s a really wonderful resource for parents to show their children.
Jonny’s experience and advice is inspirational, and the key message I took home from my chat with him was to talk. The same message was given to me by the OLLIE Foundation (One Life Lost Is Enough), a charity local to me which works to help prevent suicide amongst young people. I – like many parents – had been shy of introducing the subject of suicide to my own children, fearing that it might put a notion into their minds that wasn’t there before. Of course, when you read that back, it makes no sense at all. Teenagers will absolutely come across the subject matter at some point, so it’s better that they hear it first from someone who they trust, so they have you to talk to if they start to have worrying thoughts.
If you’d like to know more about Jonny Benjamin’s life, his campaign, and his strategies for managing his own mental health, you can find his book here. You can also watch the Channel 4 documentary The Stranger on the Bridge.
Photos by Keenan Constance, Francois Hoang and rawpixel.com on Unsplash