How to save a life in 20 minutes

news Jan 24, 2021
How to save a life in 20 minutes

Neil Laybourn was walking across Waterloo bridge on his way to work on January 14th, 2008. He soon noticed in the distance a man sitting on the edge of the bridge. The guy was under-dressed for the wet blustery London morning. He seemed to just stare into the water. Neil was almost certain this guy was going to jump.

Neil had already decided that he would talk to this guy if nobody else did first. But he was sure that somebody closer would do something to help. After all, there were plenty of people around, and Neil was still more than a hundred meters away. Nobody did.

Jonny was almost ready

Meanwhile, the guy perched on the bridge, Jonny Benjamin, was readying himself to jump. Jonny had just walked out of the psychiatric facility he had been living in for the past month, having been recently diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder. He was 20 years old.

In his pain and confusion, Jonny could see no future beyond the misery he lived each day. He was sitting on the bridge, terrified yet determined to take that final step.

“Hi mate. Can you tell me why you’re sitting there?’ were Neil’s first words. Jonny later described that simple question as bursting his ‘bubble’ of confusion and misery.

’Neil gave me the opportunity to talk, ‘Jonny recalled. ‘There was such power in that. He was so kind and calm.’

For 20 minutes Neil asked questions. Jonny answered them. Small talk, mostly. Neil then suggested that they go and have a coffee together. Jonny came down from the bridge and was instead taken away by police. Neil went to work.

Then things changed…

Six years passed. It took Jonny a while to recover and learn to manage his mental health issues. He did that and more, becoming a prominent mental health campaigner.

He also wanted to find the man who saved his life, mistakenly thinking his name was ‘Mike’.

He launched the ‘Find Mike’ campaign worldwide, gaining much media attention and learning of numerous other ‘Mikes’ in London who had saved the lives of people ready to jump from bridges around that time and place.

Neil was tracked down within two weeks, allowing Jonny to thank this extraordinary man. They have since become friends and appeared in interviews, articles, and events. They even made a documentary.

Neil was not especially equipped for talking to suicidal people. He said he just tried to ask good questions, and allowed himself to listen.

Would you have helped?

You and I might never get to save the life of a suicidal person. But our willingness to simply be there for someone in distress can be valuable beyond measure.

There are no quick fixes or certainties for people with problems. And they don’t need that from us. They need to know that they are not alone, that someone cares, and that there are alternatives and resources that they can use as they begin to find their own way. Gradually.

And we don’t need to be therapists. We don’t need to have the answers. We don’t even need to spend large amounts of time to provide a caring response to the distress of people around us.

Twenty minutes of simply asking and truly listening can transform someone’s life.

Would you have noticed Jonny on that bridge? Would you have stopped?

I work to empower more people like Neil who want the confidence to simply and effectively be there for each other in the hard times. Imagine that world, the one where people notice each other in their distress and courageously and respectfully care. The world where nobody gets left behind to suffer alone.

There are enough of us out there. It’s time we got together.

Toni Knight is the lovely mental health expert in the Being More Human team. She helps people manage stress and anxiety helps quality organisations implement mental health programs and workshops for their people.   Her specific program to do this is Here4u, an innovative workplace peer support program designed to build confidence to have empowering conversations with people in distress – colleagues, friends, or family members. Check it out at

For a conversation, contact her at *protected email*

If you or someone you love is experiencing distress, you can also call Lifeline. They care too. Tel: 13 11 14