For Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin MBE, whose important and life-affirming memoir The Stranger on the Bridge (Bluebird) was released earlier this month.
The moving title chronicles the journey Benjamin undertook in 2014, to find and thank the stranger who stopped and saved his life, six years previously.
What inspired you to write The Stranger on the Bridge?
This year marks ten years since I had my first breakdown, received my diagnosis and went to the bridge to take my own life. Finally I am in a very different place and have learnt a great deal about my own mind and mental health in general over the past decade. It felt very timely to write about my journey now.
Have you always been interested in writing? How did it feel revisiting the childhood diaries that you sample throughout?
Writing has always been incredibly therapeutic for me. Growing up I found it difficult to express my mental health issues vocally, so writing became a key outlet. Revisiting my childhood diaries was a challenging but cathartic experience. I knew I’d been distressed throughout my youth, but I had forgotten just how much I was struggling in silence.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
I think the most challenging part of the project was finally letting the manuscript go and it being published for people to read. It is such a personal and intimate book, and there was a lot in there that people didn’t know about so I felt extremely nervous in the weeks leading up to publication. Now that people have started reading it though and the response has been overwhelmingly positive I feel much more relaxed.
What impact are you hoping the book will have on its readers?
I hope it will give the reader an insight into mental illness that perhaps they haven’t had before. More than anything, I would like the book to offer those that are struggling some hope that they can overcome the adversities they are experiencing.
What has the reaction been like since sharing your story?
The reaction has been so positive. Mental health is something that touches so many of us. For such a long time it has been a taboo, but finally the silence and the stigma attached to mental illness seems to be shifting.
You’re a passionate mental health campaigner - would you say that public perception of mental health has changed or evolved in recent years? What part do you think publishing plays in this?
Publishing can play a huge role in changing attitudes towards a topic like mental health. Matt Haig’s powerful bestseller Reasons To Stay Alive helped my Mum to understand and talk about mental illness with me for the first time.
It’s an exciting time in terms of publishing on this subject. I’m seeing more and more books focusing on this area. I’m particularly looking forward to reading Natasha Devon’s A Beginners Guide To Being Mental which is published later this month. I know that it’s going to be a groundbreaking book about mental health.
Do you think the industry has a responsibility to be sharing more stories like this?
For a long time we’ve only had the opportunity to read primarily challenging stories on mental health. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a prime example of this. It is a gripping story but ultimately it is one of despair and hopelessness.
I would love to see more stories on bookshelves that offer the reader hope, whilst remaining accurate and honest, of course. Matthew Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook is one such book which is hopeful and yet doesn’t shy away from the day to day, difficult reality of living with a mental illness.
Finally, are you working on anything new at the moment?
Myself and Britt Pflüger, who I co-wrote this first book with, are now working on our second book. It will be a tribute to overcoming adversity, with contributions from various individuals who have achieved it. I’m really looking forward to working on this book. Writing The Stranger On The Bridge was hard at times because of its content, but our new book will be much lighter and more positive.
Going forwards I think I would love to write books on mental health for children and young people. 75% of all mental health issues start in adolescence so it’s vital we address the subjects of mental illness and suicide from a young age. I know it would have made a real difference to me to have read a book on mental illness when I was suffering silently in my teenage years.