‘The only thing I had in my head was to stop the pain and jump from the bridge, nothing else mattered’
- Credit: Archant
Two strangers met on a bridge. One was suicidal, the other stopped to talk him down. And now they are friends
One morning in 2008, personal trainer Neil Laybourn was walking to work over Waterloo Bridge when he saw a young man with his legs dangling over the edge.
Unsure whether it was a prankster, he stopped and realised the man was about to jump.
After talking him down from the bridge, the Police arrived and took Jonny Benjamin away.
Six years on, following Jonny’s media campaign to find Neil, the pair were reunited on camera for Channel 4 documentary The Stranger on the Bridge.
“My memory of that day is a bit hazy,” says Jonny. “It was just before my 21st birthday and I had spent a month in hospital before I ran away to the bridge.
“Everyone there was really unwell and no-one seemed to be getting better. I found it really tough.
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“The only thing I had in my head was to stop the pain and jump from the bridge, nothing else mattered.”
Neil says the bridge was busy with pedestrians, cyclists and cars and he thought someone else might stop.
“I didn’t know he was going to jump but when I got close I saw he was in complete desperation. His eyes were bloodshot. I could tell he was on the edge and plucking up the last bit of courage to jump.
“It’s hard to fathom why I stopped. A kneejerk reaction – I didn’t want to be that person who was too selfish to give time to someone who really needed help. I didn’t want to read in the newspaper ‘man kills himself at Waterloo’.”
Jonny says he was in his own world and Neil “broke the bubble”.
“It wasn’t just what he said, it was his actions, taking the time out of his day. He said ‘I am going to take the morning off, we have all the time in the world’. I was very distressed but he was patient, non-judgmental, compassionate and said ‘I think you can get better’.
“I needed to hear that because I didn’t believe I could and here was a complete stranger saying ‘I believe you will get through this’. That’s what drew me back from the edge.”
During their 25 minute chat Neil discovered Jonny had grown up in Stanmore 10 minutes from him.
“He was telling me it was too painful to be here, he didn’t want to upset his family, he was ashamed of himself. I can’t imagine what that’s like. I just started asking him questions about himself and the more I asked the more it became a two way conversation. He latched onto the idea of going for a coffee like a lifeline, but someone must have called the police. They restrained him and took him away.”
Jonny was sectioned and returned to hospital but credits Neil with helping him turn a corner.
“Afterwards I tried to get back to life. It took years to recover. It was a long journey but Neil gave me hope. Having that faith in me carried me through.”
After completing his drama degree Jonny became a mental health campaigner speaking in schools, prisons and at conferences.
“Suicide is a real taboo, the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK,” says Jonny who started hearing voices at the age of 10.
It took a decade for him to be diagnosed with schizoaffective and bipolar disorder.
“I wanted to raise awareness to stop what happened to me happening to other people.”
And he was determined to thank Neil for saving his life.
“I didn’t have his name. I couldn’t remember what he looked like but the response to the media campaign was brilliant.”
When they finally met he felt “overwhelmed and emotional”.
“But once we began talking we forgot the cameras. We got on really well and are friends now. He’s very modest. I don’t think many people would have done what he did. There’s a fear you will say the wrong thing. But that’s his nature, he will talk to anyone.”
Walking to work every day over Waterloo Bridge, Neil always wondered what had happened to Jonny.
“It was so good to hear he was well. I met him. We had a really good conversation and have become friends. It was nice to think I had made a difference and I hope it makes people think about being a bit less selfish.”
Now an ambassador for a mental health charity, Neil’s eyes have been opened to the issues “the burden on family, the stigma, the struggle just to make it through the day”.
“It’s had a big effect on my life and it’s been a fulfilling journey.”
Next up they’re running the London marathon in aid of Heads Together a charity backed by the younger royals. They’ve already met William and Kate at Kensington Palace and now have to raise £100,000.
“It’s going to be another chapter in our journey but I have no idea where to start,” confesses Jonny.
“He’s in the gym every day. I am slim and not fit. He’s going to have to slow down or I won’t keep up.”
Jonny Benjamin and Neil Layton talk at Burgh House on Nov 12 as part of Hampstead Arts Festival.