Neil Laybourn and Jonny Benjamin are two of the UK’s leading mental health campaigners. Following the #FindMike initiative, which endeavoured to find Neil after he stopped Jonny from committing suicide, the pair now tackle mental health stigma in British culture.
In recognition of their services, Neil and Jonny were listed in the Mental Health Speakers Agency’s Top 11 Mental Health Speakers for Your 2021 Corporate Conference. They regularly attend internal business events to share their guidance, to improve workplace wellbeing and resilience to stress.
We recently sat down with Jonny and Neil to hear their top tips for wellbeing, especially since the UK’s Covid-19 restrictions have eased.
Covid-19 has led many to feel isolated; what is the long term impact of the pandemic on people’s mental wellbeing?
Neil: “I think the impact of Covid-19 has obviously been devastating for a lot of people. That goes without saying. I think, in the context of mental health broadly, for those who may not have been affected by grief or have been living with their family so may not have experienced isolation, there certainly is still a negative side to it.
“In conversations I’ve had, and I think in my own experience, there’s something around losing a bit of control or losing the certainty of what you can plan to do in the future. When you lose certainty and you lose the ability to plan, it really has a negative impact on your mental health.
“Many people are thinking, even this time next year, ‘can I really plan that wedding?’, ‘can I really see my friends?’, ‘can I really do the things that keep me grounded?’ When you lose that sense of grounding it can be quite disorientating and disruptive.
“But then, there’s been a positive impact too. I think [Covid-19] has been a completely fresh start for people. It’s made them re-evaluate their work, given them an opportunity to have more flexibility and spend more time with family. And I think the biggest thing is, it’s given everybody a chance to experience gratitude, because you don’t realise what you have until it’s been taken away.”
Jonny: “Reflecting on what Neil said about positives, because it’s been such a difficult year and it’d be nice to take some sort of positive away from this. I guess the positive is that we are talking about mental health so much more, we’re so much more aware of it now.
“I think before the pandemic, particularly in the UK, we were talking about mental health, but throughout the pandemic I’ve seen so much more focus on mental health and wellbeing.
“I hear about it constantly in the news, and I think that won’t stop now. We’re not going to go backwards, hopefully we will only go forwards. Workplaces, schools, just society in general is taking it more seriously, and that can only be a good thing.”
Jonny, what made you want to launch the #FindMike campaign, and did you expect it to gain such nationwide recognition?
Jonny: “When I launched my campaign, I never expected it to get the focus and attention that it got. I just didn’t know what would come of it, really. But I really wanted to raise awareness of mental illness and suicide – the statistics kind of speak for themselves when it comes to suicides. Around the world, every 40 seconds, someone takes their own life. It’s shocking, it’s almost one million every single year.
“So, I wanted to raise awareness of suicide in particular because suicide is such a difficult topic for people to address. In spite of the statistics, it’s still quite taboo and people don’t know how to address it. People don’t even know where to start.
“My campaign was obviously about finding the guy that stopped me on the bridge, but also about raising awareness of suicide in particular.”
What is one piece of advice you both would give to someone whose friend/family member is suffering with mental health issues?
Neil: “We get asked often, ‘what advice would you give to somebody who’s struggling?’, ‘how can you be that support for somebody?’ It’s really tough to do.
“First of all, and anybody can do this whether you’ve had some training or whether it’s your first time having a conversation, I think trying to just be yourself in that conversation is really, really key.
“It’s really good to let that person just get out what they’re trying to say. And if they’re struggling to talk, we have something that has become more evident over the years, which is called ‘shared vulnerability’. So, if you think they’re trying to get something out and they just can’t find the words or they’re feeling embarrassed, sharing something about yourself, which is rather personal in the same context, can help that person to relate and feel comfortable.
“I’m a really big believer in the environment that you’re having the conversation in. So maybe some settings aren’t the best place, for example, in the workplace. We’re expected now to be able to support colleagues, but maybe the office environment isn’t the best place. So, inviting that person to go for a walk or go for coffee can really take somebody out of that place and put them in an environment where they feel they can talk.”
Jonny, coming from a different experience, what would you like to add to that?
Jonny: “It’s important to know that you don’t have to be alone if you’re supporting someone.
“Over the years, I’ve got so many emails and messages and even people coming up during the talks, to say the same: ‘my friend, my sibling, my child won’t talk. They won’t get help. I don’t know what to do’.
“We always say it’s important that you look after yourself, as well. If you’re in that situation, know that you don’t have to go through it alone. People often think they have to carry the burden on their own shoulders. But, if you’re a parent, if you’re a sibling, if you’re a child, there is support for you as well.
“And if you’ve got any sort of worries or fears, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone, contact a helpline and say, ‘I’m struggling with this person. I don’t know what to do’. And they’ll be able to guide you because it’s so hard to do it alone.”
What message do you have for people who are currently struggling with their mental health?
Jonny: “If someone is struggling with their mental health, they have to remember that they’re definitely not alone. And I know that’s a cliche, but you’re really, really not alone. I thought when I was really unwell, when I was in hospital with my mental health, I thought I was the only one.
“I thought, ‘what other 20 year old is going to be really unwell like this in a psychiatric hospital?’ But, when I started getting out there and working in mental health, I realised I definitely wasn’t alone and mental health issues are so, so, so common.
“It always amazes me, when I give a talk, the amount of people that come up at the end of the talk and say, ‘I’ve been through something’, whether it’s depression, anxiety, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, I’m always struck by the amount of people that say they’ve been through something similar.
“You realise that you are 100% not alone.
“The fact is that there is help and support out there. And, you know, it can be hard to access support sometimes with the mental health systems that we’ve got. But there is support. We work with a lot of different charities, so many amazing third sector organisations out there that could offer help and support. And so do reach out, please, reach out.”