"Mental health education when I was at school amounted to watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest..." I laughed along dryly with the rest of the huge audience that had gathered to hear mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin, MBE, speak at the BACP Private Practice Conference this weekend, in acknowledgement both of how far we have come in society, and how much further we have to go.
Sharing his own story of mental illness with openness and honesty, from depression and delusion as a young man, to a breakdown and and suicide attempt as a young adult, Jonny Benjamin is an example of the incredible resilience of people. His book, The Stranger on the Bridge and the TV programme about his experience brought the story into public knowledge. Supported now through compassion-focused therapy, medication, and a yoga and mindfulness practice, Jonny maintains that above all, it's being able to talk about mental health that has had the most significant positive impact on his life. Having felt unable to do this when he was younger, believing that everyone else felt OK - happy even - he didn't feel very hopeful that his future would ever look brighter.
It's his time as a teenager that has inspired Jonny and his business partner Neil Laybourn (actually the man who saved his life at Waterloo Bridge) to found new charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma. The aim? To improve mental health education in schools.
Through acting as a grant giving body for small mental health charities and social enterprises who work with young people and creating an alliance of small mental health providers and social enterprises to give a consistent message on mental health and wellbeing, Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma will advocate for and educate young people, their families and educators on mental health.
Throughout school, there are missed opportunities to talk about mental health in a normalising way. In science class, for example, there is the potential to learn about how mental health might affect areas of the brain. When reading Romeo&Juliet, is there not a discussion to be had about suicide? Major historical figures - Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale, Joan of Arc - and figures in the creative world such as Ernest Hemingway, Vincent van Gogh, and Virginia Woolf - are all said to have experienced mental health difficulties, and even more severe disorders.
A large proportion of mental health issues begin in adolescence: half by the age of 14 and three-quarters by our early 20s. Rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm amongst young people have all increased in recent years. Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma seems well-placed to start to tackle this issue, and encourage young people to talk openly about their mental health in the hopes that more severe and long-term mental health issues can be prevented.
Jonny Benjamin also featured in the first issue of Young&Mindful, a magazine aimed at under 25s. Available in Waitrose, Sainsbury's, WHSmith's, Aldi and Morrisons. Please email [email protected] for more info or [email protected] if you have a story for the next issue