We can all find Mike
As humans we need stories. Over the last couple of weeks I have had the privilege of having a ring side seat for one of the most beautiful and powerful mental health stories in the last couple of years – that of #Findmike.
If you haven’t seen it, and luckily lots and lots of people have seen it, the story is about Jonny Benjamin, a young man with schizo-affective disorder, who in 2008, running away from hospital, was on the verge of jumping off Waterloo Bridge. A passer-by intervened, talked to him and helped the moment of despair to pass before police and others could arrive. More than that, the passer-by offered Jonny a crucial word of inspiration, the hope that there may be a way through mental illness and that not all was lost.
Five years or so later Rethink Mental Illness has been working with Jonny to find “Mike”, as he has remembered the man who helped him on that fateful day. Thanks to media coverage, and in particular the impact of social media, we did find him and, in fact, he’s called Neil. Jonny and Neil were reunited and if you can watch their interview without crying you are a harder man than me.
I have reflected on why the story is so powerful and on some of the wider points it makes as we work to bring mental health into the mainstream of public and private debate. There are three which stand out.
First is the value of talking. One of the hardest things to cope with mental ill health is the sense that, due to stigma and fear, it becomes a private torment. It is striking that, over the last 6 years or so of work on Time to Change, the core message of “It’s time to talk” has emerged as the epitome of our work in changing attitudes. It’s not something people find easy to do and yet my experience as the Chief Executive of a mental health charity has been that people are desperate to do so. Since I’ve done this job, I can think of countless social occasions, where having introduced my occupation and given people permission, people have, without prompting, shared their personal or family experiences.
A willingness to talk about mental health has a number of benefits. It offers comfort and support to those affected and a sense that mental health problems do not have to cut them off from the rest of society. Next it makes it easier to seek help. One of the powerful things which Jonny says about his experiences was how difficult it was, when he first started feeling paranoid and hearing voices, to talk about it. Talking about mental health normalises it as an issue and allows us it to give the democratic attention to it which it deserves.
Next Thursday, 6th February, there is a big opportunity to talk about mental health as Time to Change holds its first Time to Talk day where we hope to have more than a million conversations about mental health. Might even one of them be like the one between Jonny and Neil?
The second aspect of the story which is so heart-warming is the message of hope. There is no case for being glib or polyannaish about mental illness. It can and, sadly too often does, destroy lives but recovery, of varying degrees is possible. Neil shared that message of hope with Jonny and not only did it help him step down from the edge on that day 6 years ago it also helped him on a longer term journey to wrest back his life from the shadow of mental illness. Hope sets ambition and without ambition we are tempted to accept second best. It is a scandal that we accept such poor outcomes for so many people affected by mental health problems and the hope and belief that things can be different for people should drive our commitment as a society to do something about that.
The last message I take from Jonny and Neil’s story is a more general one. That is that the opportunity to do good and make a difference can exist in all sorts of situations. I am sure that, on that day in 2008, as he crossed Waterloo Bridge Neil was n’t expecting to do something of such significance as helping to save another person’s life. So often we can be absorbed in the issues of the moment and miss the subtle cues in our daily lives of where a smile, a kind word or spontaneous act of generosity can have a powerful impact on others.
I’ve been reading a lot of R.S. Thomas recently and in The Bright Field, one of the loveliest of his poems, he says:
“I have seen the sun break through
To illuminate a small field
For a while, and gone my way and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
Of great price, the one field that had the treasure in it.”
The lovely story of Jonny and Neil which I have been alongside will encourage me, I hope, to think twice about walking past the pearl of great price, however it is disguised.
If you want to learn more about Jonny and Neil’s amazing reunion follow the link below:
If you want to see more about what’s happening on 6th February on #timetotalk day go the Time to Change website at www.time-to-change.org.uk