Jonny's search for the man who saved him from suicide encourages young people to 'Just Talk' in new Herts mental health campaign
PUBLISHED: 12:02 27 January 2018 | UPDATED: 09:36 30 January 2018
I was delighted when Barnwell Middle School in Stevenage invited me along to support Hertfordshire County Council's new "Just Talk" campaign to get young people talking about mental health issues.
Year 8 and 9 students gathered for an assembly given by mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin on Wednesday, addressing the issue that not enough people speak openly about mental health.
Jonny is well-known for his 2014 campaign #FindMike – a quest to find the stranger that stopped him from taking his own life six years earlier.
Shortly after being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2008, Jonny was on the edge of Waterloo Bridge intending to take his own life – when passer by Neil Laybourn stopped him.
Years later Jonny started what became a social media frenzy in the hope he would be able to meet the man who helped him. #FindMike went viral, and Jonny was reunited with the man who saved his life.
The pair now work together in raising awareness of suicide and mental illness across the UK, which is highlighted in their Channel 4 documentary ‘The Stranger On The Bridge’ which came out in 2015.
This is the story Jonny confidently told the students at Barnwell, with the emphasis on talking about feelings and understanding that mental health issues should be addressed in the same way as physical health issues.
Jonny told this paper: “When I was younger I struggled with my mental health and I struggled in silence. I wish that someone would have come into my school and would said ‘it’s OK to talk’. I never had those sort of messages and I think it would have stopped me from getting to that point early on.”
Following his inspirational talk, Jonny spoke to a group of boys about how they would approach the subject, and why they think it’s important to talk about it.
Jonny added: “We get told things like ‘big boys don’t cry’ and ‘man up’. I got those messages when I was growing up – as a man you’ve got to be strong, you can’t show weaknesses, you can’t be vulnerable. Reaching young boys with this different message is really important.
“We know that the biggest killer of men in this country is suicide so, again, we need to reach men at a younger age.”
The pupils agreed that Jonny’s presentation ‘inspired’ them to speak out and not to be embarrassed about issues concerning mental health.
Louie, aged 12, said: “I think that he is very inspirational. As someone relatively young we can relate to him more. If you let things out and talk about it. it would be easier, because there are people out there that will listen and have time for you.”
The campaign has been the passion project of Jen Beer, who works within the Health Improvement League for Children and Young People at Herts County Council. The campaign has been the passion project of Jen Beer, who works as Herts County Council’s health improvement lead for children and young people.
“We’ve developed lots of resources for schools to use such as specific lesson plans, activities and films,” Jen said.
“We know that particularly boys in Hertfordshire were less likely to access our mental health services, and when they did it tended to be later on when things had got to breaking point. That’s what we were responding to.
“It really needs to be something that runs through every aspect of life. They need to hear this at school and at home. That’s what we are trying to do.”
In Hertfordshire it is estimated that one in 10 children aged five to 16 have a significant mental health problem and 21 per cent of boys are unable to identify healthy coping strategies when things are worrying them.
The Priory School in Hitchin also held a mental health and wellbeing fair on Wednesday to promote boys’ issues. They were visited by a range of charities, services and agencies including the Samaritans, the OLLIE Foundation and Mind in Herts.
In Hertfordshire, those aged from 10 to 25 can log on for free online support and counselling at kooth.com and can find all kinds of advice and information at healthyyoungmindsinherts.org.uk. You can also join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #JustTalk.