The weather was gray and misty with a deep chill on the London morning in January 2008 when Jonny Benjamin almost took his own life. A recent diagnosis of a serious mental health condition already felt like a death sentence. He climbed over a railing and sat on the edge of Waterloo Bridge, staring down at the Thames River below and willing himself to jump.
Neil Laybourn was crossing the bridge by foot on his way to work, his first week back after the Christmas holidays, when he saw a lone man about his age in a T-shirt sitting on the bridge’s edge. Other Londoners, bundled in their winter coats, seemed to be passing by without notice, but Laybourn felt pulled to check to see if the man was okay.
“Hey, why are you sitting here by yourself?” Laybourn said he gently asked.
“I don’t want to be here anymore,” Benjamin told him.
Laybourn, then 24, had no experience with suicide prevention or mental illness. He realized he had no idea what to do in this situation, but he knew he had to talk Benjamin out of killing himself. He began asking the stranger questions, broad ones about where he was from and why he was upset.
“He kept telling me to leave him alone, to let him get on with it. He was very paranoid and distrusting and apprehensive about anyone speaking to him,” Laybourn recalls. “He was so distressed, I’d never spoken to anyone like that before. He was still adamant he was going to take his life. I told him we should go get a coffee, go somewhere warm and just talk.”
After some coaxing, Benjamin agreed and climbed back over the railing to join Laybourn on the footpath. But almost in the same instant a police car came screeching toward them — a passer-by had called — and Benjamin turned back to the bridge’s railing. Laybourn grabbed him. The police handcuffed Benjamin and took him away, leaving Laybourn to wonder for years what had come of the man.
For Benjamin, Laybourn not only saved his life in the moment, but also well into his recovery. Their brief interaction was, for the first time in a long time, a real human connection with a caring stranger. Laybourn may have had no idea what to say that day, but Benjamin internalized his genuine concern for his life as a reason to live.
“He said to me matter of factly, ‘I think you’ll get better.’ That was really powerful,” Benjamin says now. “I didn’t believe it, but he did, and he was sincere. He gave me hope.”
Telling his story
Benjamin had started experiencing symptoms of mental illness when he was 10 years old, but as a child he thought everyone heard voices in their heads. Later he would convince himself he was the main character of a filmed TV show, like Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show,” and that everyone in his life were just actors. That was fine by him because that meant everything he was feeling and experiencing wasn’t real.
As a teenager, he began to grapple with his sexuality and became increasingly depressed and then suicidal. He thought going to college would solve his problems, but the negative emotions only intensified there. He self harmed. He abused alcohol. And his untreated illness spiraled.
One day the delusions were so bad that he ended up in the middle of a highway screaming and yelling that he’d been possessed, he said. This led to a month-long stay in a psychiatric hospital where he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorder, like depression or mania. Having his emotions assigned a medical label didn’t make him feel better; it made his illness permanent and he felt powerless to stop it.
“I couldn’t think how it would get better; it was hopeless. I gave up,” he said. “There was no way I could recover and I was so embarrassed. It was just easier for me to just end it.”
So one morning he walked out of the hospital and to the Waterloo Bridge to end his life.
It would be several years after Laybourn coaxed him off the bridge’s edge before Benjamin would feel well enough to talk about his struggles. At first, he didn’t feel comfortable doing so in person, so he started making YouTube videos describing his experience. Suddenly he was receiving messages from all over the world from people sharing their stories with mental illness, he said. Knowing he wasn’t alone gave him the confidence to begin to talk openly about his own mental health and his sexuality.
“I started talking,” he said. “I started telling people I was gay, that I had mental health issues. I could just be myself and I wasn’t embarrassed anymore, I could just be open, which was a huge part of my recovery.”
It’s become a trend in mental health recovery that once people overcome self-stigma and appreciate how common their experience is that they then feel inspired to help others do the same. Benjamin began volunteering with British mental health charities and continuing to tell the story of the day he almost died and of the stranger who persuaded him not to.
One of the charities suggested Benjamin try to find the man, so in January 2014, they launched a campaign to “Find Mike,” the name he thought he remembered, on social media. What astonished Benjamin most is that 38 people came forward with stories of convincing people not to jump off Waterloo Bridge — he calls them “silent heroes.”
Laybourn said he had thought about Benjamin a lot over those years. He hadn’t told anyone but his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, about what he did that day. She first saw the campaign and told him that it sounded a lot like his story. When he reached out to the charity Benjamin was working with, they told him, “Jonny would really like to say thank you to the guy that helped him.”
“I didn’t realize how much it meant to me,” Laybourn said. “I was overcome with emotion.”
Now three years later, Benjamin, 30, and Laybourn, 34, are close friends. They travel the country together sharing their story in schools and at business conferences at least once a week. They enjoy a good karaoke night out together. There’s a mutual affection, a comfort and ease that only comes from closeness, that’s apparent even over a Skype interview 3,600 miles away.
Laybourn knew very little about mental illness when he first helped Benjamin, but now he’s become an advocate. He rattles off statistics about the suicide rates in the United Kingdom — the highest cause of death among British men ages 20 to 49. A fitness instructor, he wants to encourage people to take as much care with their emotional health as they do their physical. It’s made him tune into his own emotions, so when he’s feeling anxious he’ll talk it out because sharing those feelings, something that doesn’t always come easily for men, can make a huge difference, he said.
In February, Benjamin had a relapse. He hadn’t been sleeping well and his psychosis reemerged But this time he had a friend to call, someone who knew the warning signs and knew to take him to the hospital. That person was Laybourn.
“It’s really special; it’s unlike any other friendship,” Benjamin said.
“It’s a proper bromance,” Laybourn joked.
At the end of April, the two men ran side-by-side in the London Marathon, on behalf of the Heads Together campaign, a nonprofit started by Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to raise awareness around mental health. Together they raised more than £34,000 ($44,000).
As they were running, Laybourn developed a cramp at mile 17. This time it was Benjamin who encouraged his friend to keep going. As they neared the end of the marathon, the finish line a few miles away, they found themselves below the spot they first met nearly 10 years ago.
Reflecting on all they’d overcome since that day, they ran together under the Waterloo Bridge.
Read more Inspired Life: