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YOUR VOICE: Dispelling the Fear of Schizophrenia

Jonny Benjamin has become something of a poster boy for raising awareness of male mental health over the past few years, vlogging about his own experience of schizoaffective disorder, producing a documentary for BBC3 and winning awards.  He talks about his own experiences with a refreshing honesty and clarity.  Here he talks about what led him to where he is today:

jonny 1It’s exactly six years ago since I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted into hospital.

At the time, I found it impossible to talk. Mostly, this was due to shame and embarrassment.

All my friends were heading home from uni for the Christmas holidays to spend time with their loved ones, and here I was on suicide watch in a psychiatric unit where I was “likely to remain for some time,” according to my psychiatrist.

But more than that, I simply couldn’t find the words to articulate what was going on inside my mind.

A month into my stay, I ran away from hospital. Just before I left, I told my psychiatrist I was “starting to feel much better.” Secretly though, I was feeling worse than ever before.

I don’t like disappointing people or making them worry. That’s what I was sure I would do if I told anyone about the state of my mind during my teenage years: the voice of the devil I was hearing, the delusions I was being watched by cameras, and the suicidal thoughts and feelings that had by now become an everyday occurrence.  For ten years up until I was 20, I kept it all to myself. Along the way I did tell various doctors about what was going on, although I stopped myself from ever going into too much detail. I was terrified I would end up like Jack Nicholson’s character McMurphy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

When I ran away from hospital, I attempted to take my life. I was stopped though by someone passing by who told me:

“I’ve been where you are, and I’ve got through it. You can do the same.”

It was a young guy, just a few years older than me, standing there smiling at me with those words. For the first time in a long time, I could see past the feelings of absolute dread and despair that had brought me to where I was at that moment. It’s amazing what a few simple words can do. They changed the course of my actions that day, and also gave something I’d never had till that point…hope.

My recovery took some time. Even after eventually being discharged from hospital, I felt very lost; like my world had turned upside-down. I still struggled to talk. It took me another few years to tell people I had schizophrenia. That was pretty terrifying. Schizophrenics are constantly misconceived as being violent and dangerous.

This has partly been my drive in being open about living with it. I want to help break down stigma, to get rid of this culture of fear that exists around schizophrenia. Mostly, I’ve become vocal about my experiences because I don’t want anyone else to suffer in silence like I did, and to show those who are suffering that it can get better. I guess I’m trying to pass on the baton of hope that the Good Samaritan handed to me the day he stopped me from taking my life.

IMG_2633Three years ago I made my first YouTube video talking about mental illness. Since then, I’ve made over 50 videos. I find it therapeutic. It also allows me to be creative. My most recent video illustrates what it’s like to experience symptoms of schizophrenia, such as paranoia and intrusive thoughts, in various daily scenarios. It took a lot of time and energy to complete but it got a great response; even Stephen Fry tweeted about it!

The best part of vlogging for me has been connecting with others. People from all over the world have got in contact after watching my videos. Sometimes they might tell me they’ve learnt something about schizophrenia and it’s changed their perception of it, while other times someone will say it’s helped them to speak up about their own mental health issues. I have encountered a bit of stigma along the way; at first this wasn’t easy to deal with, but now I’ve learnt to shrug it off and let it go.

This year I’ve been talking about my mental health very publicly: presenting a documentary for BBC Three’s mental health season, being interviewed for the Guardian, appearing on various radio programmes and speaking at events.

I wouldn’t have been able to achieve these things without the support of those around me. I know I’m very lucky to be able to say that. I’ve also found the encouragement of the professionals working with me to be invaluable. I think there is a genuine interest out there to understand more about mental illness and reduce stigma.

The highlight of 2013 for me was winning the Janey Antoniou award for my mental health campaign work from Rethink Mental Illness. I didn’t realise it would be so emotional…I blubbed my way through my acceptance speech to my total embarrassment!

You would think by now I would probably be used to speaking publicly or to the media, but I still find it enormously challenging due to anxiety. The first thing that pops into my head whenever I’m asked to talk in front of anyone is, ‘I’m going to have a panic attack.’ When I do talk, I break out in sweats, with my heart beating so fast it feels like it’s about to burst out my chest, and the voice in my head on a constant  loop saying, “YOU’RE SHIT! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU JUST SAID THAT! YOU’RE SO BORING!”

So why put myself through it? Because the one person that comes up to you when it’s over and says, “Thank-you. You just said what I’ve always struggled to say,” makes it all so worth it.

You can follow Jonny on Twitter @MrJonnyBenjamin

Check out Jonny’s YouTube channel HERE

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