Thursday 8 August 2019

The Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support

Photo: Vikki Beat

In the latest of our Bloggers’ Days Out, fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson and I attended Stranger on the Bridge and Other Stories of Friendship and Support at George Street Social in Newcastle.

George Street Social is an alcohol-free bar and café run by the Road to Recovery Trust which offers hope and support to people in recovery from addiction problems.

We were among the first to arrive and were greeted warmly by Lucy Nichol who I first met last year at the launch of her book A Series of Unfortunate Stereotypes. Lucy is a trustee and marketing and communications lead for the Road to Recovery Trust, and chaired the event.

Photo: Martin Baker

The first to speak was Paula Cowie who is also a Road to Recovery trustee. Paula shared her lived experience and how important the Trust and George Street Social are to the local community.

Matthew Smith from the If U Care Share Foundation went next. He spoke with great honesty and openness about his older brother Daniel who took his life at the age of nineteen, and the impact his death has had on him to this day. The devastating experience led Daniel’s family to found If U Care Share.

“Our aim is to prevent anyone feeling the pain we felt as a family when we lost Daniel. We truly believe that talking can save lives.” (Shirley Smith, If U Care Share founder and Daniel’s mother)

Third to speak was Jonny Benjamin MBE. I imagine most of us at the event knew the story of how a passing stranger stopped Jonny from taking his life in 2008:

The Stranger on the Bridge, which was made into a book and a documentary film, tells the story of how, having been recently diagnosed with Schizoaffective Disorder, Jonny stood on London’s Waterloo Bridge and prepared to take his own life. That was until a stranger walking across the bridge talked Jonny down from the edge.

Jonny was immediately taken to hospital and didn’t see the stranger again, but, with the support of the charity Rethink Mental Illness, he launched the #FindMike campaign, to track the stranger down. The campaign reached over 300 million people worldwide and eventually led to Neil Laybourn — the man who saved Jonny’s life.

Hearing Jonny talk about what happened on the bridge was intensely moving for me, as I’m sure it was for everyone in the room. He spoke of Neil holding space, of his being engaged and “invested.” Above all it was Neil’s positivity and lack of judgement that made the difference, as well as him telling Jonny there was no need to be embarrassed. This stranger’s acceptance, compassion, and simple humanity saved Jonny’s life.

The final speaker was Ashley Lowe, Wellbeing Manager at Newcastle United Foundation. Ashley spoke passionately about the Foundation’s wellbeing programme, their Be A Game Changer campaign, and why the football community is a great place to support your mates.

Photo: Vikki Beat

After questions from the audience there was an opportunity to meet the speakers. Lucy told me more about the events programme at George Street Social, including an upcoming evening at which she and fellow Trigger Publishing authors Mark Edwards and Paula McGuire will share their personal mental health experiences and discuss the inspiration behind their books.

Jonny and I spoke for a good while, exploring the evening’s themes of support and friendship. I told him about me and Fran, our book, and how we support each other despite being three thousand miles apart. I could easily have talked with him for hours but there were other people waiting, Aimee included. There was just time for a photo (thanks, Vikki!)

I apologised to Aimee later for monopolising Jonny’s time and for manoeuvring myself ahead of her in the queue. All I can offer in my defence is that I learned how to engage confidently with people from Aimee herself on our first Bloggers’ Day Out at Newcastle’s Life Science Centre:

Aimee is bolder than I am and I was fascinated to see how she engaged with people I might simply have nodded to in passing.

Seeing how Aimee engaged with people reminded me that you can never tell who you might meet or where a chance encounter might lead. Being passionate about your own work and interested in other people opens doors and possibilities.

All in all the evening more than lived up to its promise of being “an inspirational event for anyone interested in, experiencing or supporting someone with a mental health problem.”

You can read Aimee’s article inspired by the event on her blog I’m NOT Disordered.


The Road to Recovery Trust

If U Care Share Foundation

Jonny Benjamin
The Stranger on the Bridge: My Journey from Suicidal Despair to Hope

Newcastle United Foundation


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