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How to combat depression with mindfulness

In 2008 Jonny Benjamin tried to take his own life; today his charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma helps others with their mental health struggles. He talks to Paul Dargan about his extraordinary journey

Mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin’s relationship with the square mile is more profound than most.

While the landmark that will forever define him, Waterloo Bridge, is perhaps 300 metres from the true boundary of the City of London, the stresses, pressures and worries that accompany those who work in the heartland of the capital’s financial district do not limit themselves with the geography.

“Stress, anxiety – these aren’t things that just switch off when we finish work, when we start the weekend or even when we go to bed at night,” begins the 31-year-old. “They are there all the time, influencing our mental health, configuring our wellbeing determining our ability to function. But for me, if dedicating myself to helping men, in particular, speak up about the pressures they are under leads to just one life being bettered, then it has all been worthwhile.”

It was when passerby Neil Laybourn talked him down from Waterloo Bridge in 2008 that, for Jonny Benjamin, a life that had been filled with so many questions suddenly began providing answers… and more than that, a purpose.

The 31-year-old, who has been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, utilised that harrowing experience in the pursuit of helping others; yet encouraging men to speak up about their worries, fears and stresses is only tackling the end product of a problem that is said to affect over 12.5% of men in the UK at any one time.

“There is a macho culture that still exists, particularly in business and in the office,” he says. “In those competitive environments men don’t want to show that there are chinks in their armoury – it’s just not the ‘done thing’.

“When I grew up, I used to cry a lot and get emotional, and people would say to me, ‘Men don’t cry; come on, man up now’. But I suppose that is just part of our language and how we talk in society when we see boys or men crying and I think that that is something that needs to change.”

By the time people get into the workplace, it can be too late

Now Jonny wants to work right back to the root of the problem, having come to the conclusion that if support, encouragement and the ability to speak out had been there for him at an early age, things might have been different.

“By the time people get into the workplace, it can be too late,” he says. “I see things such as ClassDojo’s mindfulness initiatives. This is innovative and engaging software used in classrooms that teaches students how to focus, handle emotions and become brilliant young people, going right back at primary school age – as something incredible.

“Not only does it mean the next generation are better encouraged and better equipped to talk about and deal with their emotions, but with so many of us being parents and grandparents, there is a direct effect on us, and a direct benefit.

“We need to encourage boys to be open with how they are feeling and to talk and ask for help from a young age. The whole ClassDojo mindfulness initiative is starting in classrooms and I think that is the right way, because the younger we reach them and tell them that it’s okay to struggle, the more chance we have. It should feel natural for kids to want to talk about their feelings – and if kids can do it in the classroom the adults can do it in the workplace.”

While ClassDojo’s Mindful Moment was a nationwide schools concept planned to coincide planned to coincide with primary school SATs tests, the playing out of mindfulness via this and countless other projects now represents a line drawn in the sand for how we move forward in tackling mental health issues.

In the simplest form, that mindfulness buzzword is incredibly self-explanatory – it promotes, expresses and celebrates our mind’s ability to think clearly. In reality, it can arrive via a number of different forms and just depends on personal preference.

At the heart of this is me wanting to encourage men to ask for help

For instance, Jonny uses a number of processes and techniques in his own version of mindfulness – from outdoors pursuits such as climbing and walking, to yoga and meditation, to practical fixes as small and seemingly insignificant as a regular toothbrushing routine, to bigger actions such as ensuring devices and screens don’t interrupt sleep. “My mindfulness isn’t one specific thing – it’s a combination of actions and processes that end up being greater than the sum of the parts,” he says.

“Obviously there isn’t a full-proof plan and I am constantly having to change, adapt and revise how I go about things, because life is like that. But at the heart of this, I am so much stronger and more equipped to deal with things that come my way, and that’s because I have embraced mindfulness and taken back control.”

Jonny, whose recently launched charity Beyond Shame, Beyond Stigma specifically helps young people, also emphasises that mindfulness shouldn’t just be regarded as a purely personal venture into the mastering of the mind. “Talking and sharing is always one of the very best therapies. There are lots of people like me and we are in a much better era now where these are things that can be discussed. A lot of mental health support comes down to joining people together because it is hard when you are doing it on your own.

“Some of my friends used to sit me down and get me to talk about things in a very formal way and it was really awkward. Now, they will bring it up very casually when we go to the cinema or out to eat. It’s very easy.

“At the heart of this is me wanting to encourage men to ask for help. And if you don’t feel you need it, then try to offer it. You never know who may take you up on the offer.”

Jonny Benjamin MBE is an award-winning mental health campaigner, film producer, public speaker, writer and vlogger from London. He is supporting ClassDojo’s Mindful Moment initiative which encourages teachers and students to experience first-hand the benefits of mindfulness, in the hope of establishing the practice as an integral part of the school day.