Jonny Benjamin has been on a remarkable journey in the decade since he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. JLife’s Laura Sefton caught up with him shortly after it was announced that he had been awarded an MBE to find out more about the mental health campaigner.
2017 is shaping up to be a very busy year for Jonny Benjamin. Not only is he juggling writing two books with training for the London Marathon, preparing for his 30th birthday and honouring speaking engagements, but he also has something very special coming up in his already-packed schedule.
When I chat to the mental health campaigner, film producer, public speaker, writer and vlogger from London in mid-January, it is a fortnight since the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for 2017 was announced. Jonny has spent the last 14 days in a hectic whirlwind; answering questions about the MBE he has just been given: “The last two weeks have been unbelievable. Just really, really busy, but it’s all good,” he explains.
Five weeks before the announcement, Jonny was at home with his family eating takeaway when the letter arrived for him telling him he was among the names listed in this year’s honours list. Now, he is preparing to go to Buckingham Palace to meet royalty and formally accept his award at the end of February.
The MBE is the result of his time spent campaigning to raise awareness of the stigma around mental health issues, as well as his services to suicide prevention. It comes after Jonny himself was, at the age of 20, diagnosed in 2007 with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and depression – a diagnosis that he says was a mixture of relief, because there was a name for what was happening, and fear: “I felt a fear of being stigmatised and judged. I wondered what people would say. Would I be rejected? Would I be able to get a job? There was a lot more stigma back then and people talked about it less 10 years ago.”
Jonny was studying drama at university in Manchester when everything came to a head. He explains that he had been unwell for a while but had never addressed it: “And then I had a massive breakdown. I ended up in the middle of a dual carriageway near my student house and I was psychotic.
“It was a culmination of being in my third year at university, which was really stressful, and just not dealing with the illness I had. I wasn’t talking about it as I saw it as a weakness to admit I was struggling. It was bound to happen. I had no choice but to go into hospital. I needed treatment.”
His hospitalisation was a shock for his family and friends as he had hidden his mental state for so long. He had done well at school and they believed he was continuing to do well at university because he perceived the thoughts and feelings he had been having as something to be ashamed of.
Today, Jonny uses this experience to try to help those who may be struggling. He is passionate about promoting open discussions about mental health in schools, colleges, universities and workplaces, and wants to tell people it is ok to talk and to admit they are finding things difficult.
“Schools are my big priority. We know 75% of all mental illness begins in adolescence, so I’m going into schools this year to educate young people. I went to JFS [the largest Jewish school in Europe, which is based in in Harrow] and during PE we would focus on our bodies and how to keep them fit but there was never anything for our minds. It doesn’t make sense.
“The Government needs to help too. It will tackle childhood obesity but won’t educate young people about their mental wellbeing. We’ve got to keep pushing until there is a change.”
The statistics speak for themselves. As Jonny explains, suicide is the biggest killer of young people under 35 and he wants to know why this is not being addressed: “If it was something physical we would be. It’s not just young people, either; it’s whole communities.
“I work with the Jewish Association of Mental Illness (JAMI) and I now go into synagogues and Jewish schools to give talks. Things seem to be changing but it’s taken a long time to get there. There’s a worry in the community: ‘What will they think of me, of us?’ Which is a shame as mental illness is no different to physical illness, but it’s invisible and different to a broken leg where people say ‘oh, are you ok?’ People worry how they’ll be judged. I think that’s been part of the problem. You wouldn’t hesitate to treat someone with cancer so why not things in the head?”
Jonny’s Jewish identity plays a big part in his life. He went to Limmud last year and during his time in Manchester he attended shul and Friday night dinner with his family who live in the city. Now, through his work with JAMI, he has found a place where his faith and his campaign work combine: “Being Jewish will always be an important part of everything I do and it always will be. I want to do as much as I can to offer support for the Jewish community in terms of mental health awareness. My own family is much better at talking about it and I’m confident we will all get there.”
There are other ways that Jonny is hoping to help and inform others too, and 2017 is the year these plans will fall into place. He is in the process of writing two books that are being published by Pan Macmillan, one of which is diary-based: “I’ve been writing diaries since I was about 11 so it’s quite a big editing job. To read back when I went through the difficult times is tough but I want it to hopefully help other people and make them feel less alone.”
This is not the first time Jonny has been published. His collection of poetry, Pill After Pill, features poems from when he was first unwell when he was 20: “Poetry was my outlet,” he says. “And then when I was feeling better I decided to publish to show people what it’s like to go through mental illness. I read the poems and it feels like I didn’t write them. I was in a very different headspace then.”
In addition to editing his books, Jonny is currently in training for the London Marathon, which he hopes will raise £100,000 for Heads Together, the mental health charity backed by Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. “I’m quite nervous. I’m not a proper runner,” Jonny says. Given the journey he has been on to date, and the drive he has, he is sure to make it round the course and smash his target. We know he can do it.