Depression, masculinity and the life-saving power of kindness
"It's so easy to laugh, it's so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind." - The Smiths
Speaking to Jonny Benjamin, it soon becomes evident what a pleasant, affable chap he is. He is very easy to talk to and an excellent communicator. It's a good thing too, because he is due to speak at the Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre between Friday, November 25, and Sunday, November 27.
The festival aims to challenge preconceptions of masculine identity in the 21st century, and Jonny will be appearing as part of a debate entitled 'Mandown: How To Reduce The Male Suicide Rate'. It's sadly pertinent too. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK, with over 76% of all suicides in 2014 being men - three times higher than amongst women.
Jonny knows first-hand what it is like to experience severe depression and be driven to the point of wanting to end it all. In 2008, he ran away from a hospital stay with the intention of jumping off a bridge and taking his own life. He didn't, and that is due in a large part to the kindness of a stranger who was there for him at that vital moment.
It eventually led to the social media campaign to 'Find Mike', the name that Johnny had bestowed upon the mystery good samaritan. 'Mike' turned out to be Neil Laybourn, and they were finally reunited in 2014. Neil has been described as 'talking' Jonny out of ending his life, but it sounds more like listening was his greatest gift.
"Listening is so important. You want to help and you want to give advice, but sometimes the most important thing is just to listen," explains Jonny. "It's like the situation with Neil on the bridge - a big way in which he helped was listening to me. I was in hospital and unwell, and people just didn't have time to listen; the staff were really busy.
"And yet here was this stranger who just said: 'You know what mate, it's fine. I'll take the morning off work and we can go for a coffee'. Just that act of listening and being there was so powerful. It wasn't about trying to fix things, just letting me talk. Validating the other person's experiences can be so incredibly helpful."
I put it to Jonny that sometimes you are aware that your mate isn't in a good place, and that he needs to talk to someone, but there can be a sense that you don't know what to say, and don't feel qualified to advise them. Jonny explains that you don't need to be there to fully understand - just being there is enough.
"If someone needs specialist long-term support, then of course they should seek professional help, but if they are suffering in a crisis, or even feeling suicidal, anyone can help them through it. It's just about showing genuine support and kindness - anyone can do that, it's just being human.
"When I was suicidal, it was a complete stranger that brought me out of it. He wasn't trained, he wasn't a professional; he just showed me a lot of compassion and empathy. He was just there for me - even though I didn't even know him. He was just being a fellow human-being. It was he rather than any specialist who managed to talk me out of it. Anyone can do that.
"I don't think there's a wrong way of helping - as long as you show that you care. You don't have to necessarily understand what's going on in that person's head - you can just listen and be kind. It's within us all."
As you can probably tell, Jonny is deeply passionate about people receiving help when they need it the most. He works tirelessly as a mental health and suicide prevention campaigner, and hopes that his experiences can help others to understand what depression is and how to cope with it.
"It's different for different people. In my case, it was more about learning to cope with my feelings. I still struggle - I've been in that place since and felt suicidal again since that day on the bridge, but it's about learning to cope, and learning to talk about it.
"Some people may go through a single bout of depression or feeling suicidal and that's it, which is fine. But for others like myself, it is something you learn to live with. It nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about - that can stop people from opening up. I think if you know you've overcome something once, you know you can do it again - even though it's hard."
Jonny explains that men face specific social barriers to conform to an accepted idea of masculinity, which involved ignoring your problems, not talking about them - and to use a misnomer - be 'strong' about it all.
"We use the term 'man up and get on with it', but no one tells women to just 'woman up'. For men, it's like we're not allowed to be vulnerable or show emotion - we just have to get on with things. Society almost expects women to be more vulnerable and emotional than men, and that's a huge issue.
"Just look at the suicide rates in men - it hasn't changed in 30 years, whereas for women the suicide rate has halved in the same period. It's because of the perception of macho behaviour that he have in society, and that needs to change. Until it does, the suicide rate amongst men is going to stay the same."
Because of Jonny's prominent role in promoting mental health awareness, and due to his incredible honesty about his own experiences, he does tend to get people contacting him at desperate moments in their lives for help and guidance. I suggest that this must be something of a heavy responsibility to bear, especially when people's lives are on the line.
"It has got tough at some points," he admits. "There was a guy in Manhattan a couple of years ago, who contacted me and said 'I'm about to jump out of my apartment window. Here's my cell phone number, can you call me?' That was really hard. That was probably the most difficult message that I've ever received to be honest."
But again, he explains that even in cases of people reaching out to him, there is a worrying bias towards women seeking help on behalf of others, rather than men themselves.
"Do you know what I get a lot? I get women messaging me to say that their son, or husband, or boyfriend, or dad won't talk and asking me what to do. I do get messages from men, but it's more a case of women asking for help because the men that they care for and love will not, and that's so sad.
"If someone isn't ready to talk, it's really hard. But again, it is all related to social stigma. The stigma of mental health that we really need to get rid of for good."
Jonny feels that this warped idea of masculinity could be in some way addressed by male role-models and celebrities talking openly about their mental health problems and issues with stress.
"We need people like footballers and men in the public eye to come out and say: 'I struggle when I'm vulnerable at times. I don't always feel strong', instead of this macho attitude that isn't helpful. More and more men are talking about these things and that's great, but not enough.
"It's important to understand that you can be strong, but you can also be vulnerable at the same time - and that's okay. There's actually been a few rugby players who have come out and said 'I struggle and I'm vulnerable', and that's amazing because you get these huge macho figures who are physically so strong and yet show that they can be vulnerable - and that's a form of strength too."
Of course when sportsmen do open up about their mental health, much depends on how it is received by the media and general public. Talk turns to England batsman Jonathan Trott, and how his admissions of serious depression were reported at the time.
"Some of the papers were like: 'You can't blame your poor performance on stress or your mental health, that's just an excuse'. It really annoyed me. It's so unfair to blame someone just because they are having a hard time and suffering from depression. If he was suffering from a physical ailment, they wouldn't dare say just carry on.
"If it was something like a broken leg, taking time out wouldn't be seen as a sign of weakness. In fact the individual would receive the best treatment that money could buy. We need to have the same attitude towards mental health. It isn't taken seriously enough. People just say 'pull yourself together' or 'man up and get on with it'."
I suggest that perhaps they're a bit more open to discussing mental health in the US, where celebrities often talk about seeking psychiatric help and visiting their 'shrinks', but Jonny explains that if anything, America is lagging behind.
"To be honest I don't think they take it seriously enough. There's so many differences around the country in terms of how mental health issues are perceived and treated. You compare somewhere like New York or LA, where lots of people are seeing a shrink, to somewhere like Oklahoma or Dallas, where they don't have that culture.
"When you look at what has happened in American with their gun crime and tragic mass shootings, you can't really say that they're ahead of us in terms of mental health. I actually believe that we're more progressive with initiatives like Time to Change, and the excellent work that the likes of CALM do.
"The US do have something called Bring Change 2 Mind, but it's very new and hasn't reached anything like the level that Time to Change has over here. Mental health is spoken about more openly here now. I actually think that the US are behind us now. Of course we've still got such a long way to go, but things are happening at least."
Alas in this age of crippling austerity and food banks on every corner, there is a pressing need for charities and good-natured members of the Great British public to pick up the slack. Thankfully, there are number of citizen-led services.
"There are lots of really great initiatives around the country, like Men’s Shed, Lions Barber Collective and Mental Health Mates to name just a few, and that's so important because of the cuts to mental health services.
"Some people are waiting up to three years to get talking therapy via the NHS, which is horrendous. So we do need more of that kind of grassroots activity going on where people are supporting each other, and being there for one another."
Speaking to Jonny, there's no sense of dismay or resignation, only a clear desire to change things for the better and a strong will to make it happen. Despite the less than cheery subject matter, I go away feeling optimistic and uplifted. Things must and will change.
I guess it's true what they say - it's good to talk.
Being A Man runs between Friday, November 25 and Sunday, November 27. The debate entitled 'Mandown: How To Reduce The Male Suicide Rate' takes place between 3.30-4.30pm on Friday, November 25.