Last week saw the launch of an awareness initiative from Jonny Benjamin, the one-man social media phenomenon behind the #FindMike campaign that took the world by storm in 2014. The search aimed to find the stranger who, on 14th January 2008, stopped and talked to Jonny – and, in doing so, saved his life by persuading him not to jump off Waterloo Bridge. Jonny, who'd recently been diagnosed with a form of schizophrenia, had decided he wanted to end his life, but the stranger spoke to him, chatted through the problems and stopped him from jumping.
Six years on, Jonny’s search went viral and Mike (who, it turned out wasn’t called Mike, but was in fact ‘Neil’), was eventually tracked down via social media – much to the delight of the national media who covered it en masse. Since then, as well as a Channel 4 documentary (if you haven’t seen it, do so, it’s incredible), Neil and Jonny have toured the UK spreading the word about the need to talk about mental health taboos and break down the stigma associated with it – especially for men.
It’s a passion that recently saw the pair given the ‘Making a Difference’ award by MIND as special commendation for their drive to bring the issue out in the open. I was lucky enough to be in the audience with others from the CALM team on the evening of the ceremony (we were ourselves nominated for an award that night for the magazine), and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as a few hundred people stood and applauded Jonny and Neil as they stepped up to collect their award.
Jonny is now striving to make the push more formal, and get mental health education on the national curriculum – an obvious, utterly necessary move – under the banner of his ThinkWell programme. The stats back it up: 75% of mental health issues start before the age of 18; 90% of children experience stigma and discrimination as a result of mental health; and right now a record number of people are being admitted to hospital due to self-harm, depression, eating disorders, and psychological problems. It’s unbelievable that physical education is a solidly embedded and integral part of a child’s education, yet understanding about the most complex organ in the body – the brain – is still not taught, let alone the taboos around ill-health tackled.
“We've seen so far in the pilot workshops that ThinkWell can make a real difference to young people,” said Jonny of the move. “I think we've underestimated how many young people are struggling with mental health issues and we need to address this issue urgently! We have to get mental health onto the curriculum! It's not right that physical health education is compulsory in schools and mental health is not. This isn't just about our workshop, but trying to change the bigger picture and get mental health education the place in our schools it so desperately needs.”
From my own perspective, I suffered when young because of bullying, (I was little – an easy target for bullies), and withheld much of the emotions and issues. Equally, I didn’t know when, a few years later in my early twenties, the severe mental health problems and burgeoning addiction issues I had were ‘okay’ to talk about and subsequently tackle. I’m in no doubt that this lack of confidence about discussing them – either with a professional, friends, or family – exacerbated the problems and allowed them to linger and grow to the extent where counselling and eventually a stint in rehab were needed. I still suffer today, (although thankfully I am on top of the addiction; six years plus sober), but I now know what warning signs to look for, who to talk to, and how to stop my brain spiralling out of control. Ten years ago – let alone twenty five – this wasn’t the case.
Tanya Byron, Clinical Psychologist specialising in working with children and adolescents, explains perfectly why the programme is needed: “ThinkWell is a necessary project that should be available to all children and young people. As Jonny Benjamin shows, it is possible to return from significant mental health difficulties and live well. By sharing his story and engaging children and young people in the important debate around their and others' mental health, Jonny and the Pixel Learning team are doing so much to empower and educate our upcoming generation and make the stigma and taboo of mental ill health a thing of the past.”
Jonny has become, rightly, a pillar of the mental health establishment for his work raising awareness of the issues associated with it, and through his bravery in transparently demonstrating the dangers of not tackling it at an early stage. ThinkWell should be the next step in his incredible journey.