When first consider going to therapy?
I was first referred to therapy by my GP when I was 17 via an NHS service for under 18s. I ended up going for just a single session... The sessions were meant to carry on but they never followed up with me. As someone who had found it difficult opening up, that experience left me feeling pretty deflated.
At 18, I went to Uni in Manchester. I ended up going back to my doctor who again referred me on to a counsellor. I saw that counsellor for about a year but never really warmed to him or felt any real connection.
Things took a turn for the worse when I was 20, resulting in my first breakdown. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and referred on to group therapy. To be honest, I found opening up to strangers pretty overwhelming – particularly as my symptoms meant I found it difficult to concentrate at the time. It was these sessions which ultimately led me me back to individual therapy.
How difficult did you find it going back to therapy?
To be honest, I felt embarrassed about my diagnosis back then and it was a struggle. I'm from a Jewish family where talking about your feelings isn't really the norm. I found therapy through the NHS to be quite cold and clinical... A lot of ticking boxes and filling in forms.
How would you describe therapy to someone currently sitting on the fence?
I've come to really rely on therapy; it's my anchor. I see therapy as my safe space – it feels good to have a designated space to talk about my thoughts and feelings, knowing that I'll never be judged. My therapist is amazing! He explains my thoughts and feelings and helps me put them into context so I can find more clarity.
What, in your opinion, makes a good therapist?
For me, a good therapist is someone who can help you dig into your past, provide context and understand the whys. I see my therapist as my confidante and guide. He reminds me that he's not there to provide all the answers, but instead there to support me in finding my own. My therapist has helped me see the positive even through the difficult moments... I had a relapse last year but with his support and guidance I found that I was able to recover faster.
Did you ever have an epiphanies or ah-ha moments in therapy?
Often, yes – in fact, I had one this morning!
How has therapy helped you through the difficult moments?
Therapy encouraged me to change my lifestyle and focus on doing the things that make me feel good – self-care, eating better, taking time-off... As someone who generally puts a lot of pressure on myself, I find it difficult to say 'no' and make proper time for myself. With his support, I've found practical steps to ensure that I do – like taking Friday's off!
What type of therapy are you having currently?
At the moment, my therapist is trained in Compassion-Focused Therapy. Whilst CBT focuses on thoughts, Compassion-Focused Therapy centres predominantly on feelings. We do different types of exercises in my session which I find really helpful. One involves sitting in different chairs; the self-critic chair and the compassionate chair. I'll sit in my self-critic chair and list all the things that I struggle with or make me feel ashamed. I'll then move over to my compassionate chair and have a conversation with my self-critic in response. As someone who loves drama and creativity, it has helped me dig deeper, understand myself better – and ultimately develop more self-compassion.
Do you have any examples of how therapy has helped you?
Yes. For one, it has definitely made me less reactionary. Small things that used to really irritate me like getting bumped into on the tube don't bother me the same way anymore. Therapy has naturally made me more empathetic. Nowadays when things like that happen, I check-in with myself and consider how that person may be feeling, that maybe they've had a rough day... Inevitably, that means I don't react in the same way.
Do you think therapy can make us more positive as a society?
Definitely. There's so much anger and negativity in the world today – particularly in the newspapers and social media. Unfortunately, people really buy into what they read but most of what's out there is just an opinion, a thought or projection. Therapy is great because it helps expose our vulnerabilities and open us up so we become less judgemental to the world around us.
What role do you think technology can play in therapy and mental health?
I think the most important thing is to spend time away from technology... Certainly that has been the case for me. Being face-to-face and present with someone. Nothing beats being able to sit and interact on a human level. It's great that there are so many apps coming out that support mental health. My only worry is that apps shouldn't be the only solution – we need human interaction too.
If you had just one action that could help therapy reach more people, what would it be?
I'd prioritise making therapy a standard in schools. I've heard so many stories from teachers about how they've referred pupils on to therapy but ended up waiting months and months... By that point, a lot of people give up. The fact is, three quarters of mental health issues start in adolescence, when the brain is being formed. Personally, I'd love to see therapy become a standard in every school.
Jonny Benjamin is an award-winning mental health campaigner, film producer, public speaker, writer and vlogger from London. In the Queen’s 2017 New Year Honors List, Jonny has been awarded an MBE for his services to mental health and suicide prevention.
Jonny founded the charity Beyond Shame Beyond Stigma alongside Neil Laybourn to raise funds that provide mental health education programs for young people, their families and their educators. The charity will be open to receiving funding applications from 2019 but you can start raising money for them now.