A drop in the ocean: Jonny Benjamin

29 September 2016

‘Bedlam: the asylum and beyond’ interrogates the original ideal that the asylum represented – a place of refuge, sanctuary and care – and asks whether and how it could be reclaimed. This blog series intends to showcase as many different voices and perspectives from people with lived experience of mental ill health and explore their ideas of personal asylum

This post is from Jonny Benjamin, a mental health campaigner and vlogger attempting to break the stigma of mental health.

I find it difficult to look into someone’s eyes and talk. As soon as I do, a hundred thoughts start flooding through my mind: what do they think of me? Am I blinking too much? Why did I just say that?!

The biggest consequence of my self-doubt was hiding my struggle with mental illness throughout my teenage years, until I eventually had a breakdown and became psychotic at the age of 20. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and admitted into a psychiatric unit.

The staff there told me I needed to talk, but due to shame, embarrassment and stigma I stayed silent. It took subsequent years of perpetual self-destruction until I finally opened up. My medium of choice was my camera: I’ve spoken to my camera more openly and honestly than I’ve ever spoken to anyone in person.

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The Truman Show

Thinking back, I immediately felt “at home” on camera because for so many years I believed I was being filmed all day, everyday. Since I was ten I’ve experienced what psychiatry now calls The Truman Delusion. It began after a trip to the cinema to see The Truman Show. As soon as the film ended, my friend I was with playfully teased me that I could be on my own version of The Truman Show: “Maybe even I’m not real. I could be an actor. We could all be actors. Every single person in this cinema could be acting right now…you never know!”

A seed was planted in my mind that soon flourished into a garden of fantasies about where the cameras were watching me and what to do to entertain the masses. I didn’t have many friends growing up and I often felt very lonely. The cameras, as well as the voice of an angel I was hearing, were therefore companions of sorts.

Perhaps I started filming my video blogs to reclaim something back of my life before diagnosis. My psychiatrist later observed me as “a shadow of my former self”. I remember it describing perfectly how I felt. The world seemed to have lost all of its colour.

But beginning to film my experiences gave me a sense of purpose again. More importantly, the more I spoke on camera about my mental health, the less ashamed I felt about it. I could literally sense a weight lifting from my shoulders when I was able to express out loud my innermost thoughts and feelings.

Making the video blogs has been liberating. I’ve talked about everything from struggling with my sexuality, to feeling suicidal, to losing my libido. I chose to make these videos public on YouTube with great trepidation. But I wanted to reach out to others who may be suffering in the same way.

It was a relief to receive messages from people who also experienced the Truman Delusion, heard a voice or endured panic attacks. Mental illness can be so incredibly isolating due to the stigma attached to it. Although times are changing, it is still something of a taboo in society when compared to physical health issues like diabetes or heart disease.

Video blogging, or vlogging, has allowed me to connect to the extraordinary mental health community online. The support and encouragement shown to me when I experienced a relapse two years ago, which I documented through my Recoverlog series on YouTube, still amazes me to this day. I know well the pitfalls of social media, but it is important to remember the positive impact it can potentially have too.

I have made 115 video blogs. Whenever I am struggling with an issue, one of the first things I do is press the record button on my camera. Sometimes I will find relief or perhaps even a solution to my issues during the recording. I will always feel better for unburdening myself.

Vlogging so publicly has helped me carry out my work today in schools, prisons, hospitals and businesses where I lead talks and workshops about mental health and suicide, trying to break down stigma. It also led me to working with the media and making a documentary for Channel 4, The Stranger On The Bridge, broadcast last year. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do this without the experience of vlogging.

I realise that video blogging isn’t for everyone; I imagine some might say I expose myself too much. But if it aids just one person in their own struggles, whilst helping me with my own, I intend to keep vlogging. It’s been a vital aspect in moving forward and helping me to manage my mental health.

Jonny is an award-winning mental health campaigner, filmmaker, public speaker, writer and vlogger from London. Find out more about Jonny on his website or follow him on Twitter.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond‘ is on until 15 January 2017.