Jonny Benjamin remembers the first time he thought about ending his life.
“It was around the age of 16 or 17,” says the mental health and suicide prevention campaigner, who made last year’s Channel 4 documentary, The Stranger On The Bridge, about a later attempt on his life.
“I remember being in the back of my parents’ car on the way to a family event. We drove past a large cemetery, and I looked into it and felt desperately that I wanted to be buried there.
“It seemed so peaceful in the cemetery; a total contrast to what was going on for me at that time. I was depressed, delusional and hearing the voice of the devil in my head. I’d had enough and was rapidly losing the will to live.”
While feeling suicidal can be alienating and a lonely experience – with warning signs including, but not limited or exclusive to, being more reckless than usual, withdrawing, and feeling like death is the only solution – Benjamin isn’t alone in having thought about ending it all.
Samaritans, the charity that provides emotional support to those in despair, including people experiencing suicidal thoughts, estimates that 17% of us have thought about ending our lives at some point or other.
Led by volunteers who offer a non-judgemental and confidential space to talk through difficult emotions via calls, emails, letters and visits in their branches and in prisons, the charity believes that with the right support, it is possible to overcome these feelings.
“Suicidal thoughts are actually quite common and can happen to anybody,” says Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland.
Reasons for feeling suicidal vary wildly from person to person, and as Sutherland notes, “may not be associated with being depressed”.
“It’s not [the case that] you become depressed and then you become suicidal,” she explains. “It can happen to people when they feel particularly overwhelmed. That can be a slow, gradual thing, or it can be a sudden thing. Some people can go from perfectly fine one minute, to about to end their lives in the next.”
Finding support during these periods is crucial.
“It’s about listening to yourself and not suppressing your feelings,” says Sutherland. “Understanding that having dark thoughts, feeling hopeless, feeling isolated are signals you need to talk to somebody.”
The charity believes sharing feelings can save lives. As well as their annual 24/7 Awareness Day, held on July 24 to highlight the 24/7 support they offer, they’ve just launched Talk To Us, a new campaign to improve listening skills and encourage people to find somebody to talk to.
Broaching the subject can be a big step to make, so Sutherland suggests writing down any feelings beforehand.
“Think about somebody who you trust,” she says. “That might be a teacher, a member of your family, a close friend, Samaritans, or your GP. Whoever you think may be trusted in your circle. Talking is the thing.”
And so too is continuing to seek support if you feel suicidal again.
“Think back to what happened when you felt like this last time,” says Sutherland. “What helped? What was the best thing you did in that time when you felt that bad?
“Generally, people will say that talking to somebody was the main thing. So take courage from how you managed to overcome difficulty in the past and know you can overcome that again.”
As someone who has overcome suicidal feelings, Benjamin believes there really is hope.
“Someone having a heart attack wouldn’t hesitate to get help. It should be the same if you’re feeling suicidal,” he says, though he acknowledges there’s “still a great deal of stigma out there”.
“The most important thing to remember is that suicidal thoughts and feelings are temporary and will pass,” Benjamin stresses.
“I know that may seem impossible at the time, but feeling suicidal can always be overcome.”
“When I first felt suicidal, I sought help from various GPs, but I was too embarrassed and ashamed to talk to the people around me. ‘What have you got to be depressed about?’, I kept asking myself. These were meant to be the best years of my life. But my mental health spiralled and I ended up having a major breakdown at university. I became psychotic, was sectioned and ended up in hospital. I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder [a combination schizophrenia and bipolar]. For a long time after, I felt like I’d been given a life sentence and would never recover.
“I had a relapse about two years ago and became suicidal again. It’s so intense when the suicidal thoughts come. But now I talk about them. I’ve been helped by the Samaritans many times, either by phone, email or usually in person at one of their branches. Just an hour of talking can make the world of difference. Having someone non-judgemental and patient and understanding listen to what you have to say… It is tough, but I always come away feeling much lighter afterwards. I also try and channel those periods into something creative, like poetry or making music. It’s so important to have an outlet when you’re suicidal. I’m in a very different place now.”