Episode 102: Emma Benoit, Attempted Suicide Survivor and Motivational Speaker
On this episode, Karen speaks with Emma Benoit from Prairieville, Louisiana, who was just 16 years old when she survived a suicide attempt. Today, she is a powerful motivational speaker who’s miraculous story and message of hope inspires audiences of all ages.
Emma Benoit became extremely passionate about suicide prevention after surviving a suicide attempt in 2017, the summer before her senior year in high school. At the time, she was a popular varsity cheerleader with a supportive family and lots of friends, but on the inside, she was filled with depression and anxiety, and had never told a soul about it. Her attempt resulted in a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed but helped her find faith and purpose; and propelled her on a mission to use her painful experience and miraculous recovery to help others.
A few months after her attempt, Emma started the website liferejuvenated.org and a blog to share her story and recovery journey, in an effort to help other teens who are struggling. In early 2018, Emma began working on a documentary film called My Ascension, which is scheduled for release in 2021, that chronicles her recovery journey and advocacy work, while addressing the youth suicide epidemic.
Emma serves as an Ambassador for LivingWorks, the world’s leader in suicide prevention training and in December of 2020, Emma was a featured guest on Jada Pinkett Smith’s hit show “Red Table Talk”; and she has also been featured on numerous other news programs and podcasts.
Emma is an uplifting speaker who has shared her powerful story and message with thousands of people at in person and virtual conferences and events including: LivingWorks and California Department of Education Youth Summit, National Federation of Families for Children's Mental Health Conference, LSU School of Social Work Conference, Arkansas Youth Mental Health Conference, Hope Rising Suicide Prevention Summit and the Hope Squad National Conference.
Emma is a 2018 graduate of Dutchtown High School, whose strength and motivation are rooted in her strong faith and supportive family.
Intro Voices 00:04
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me? This is You Matter, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Campus Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:36
Hi, everyone, and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Campus Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today I welcome Emma Benoit. Emma is from Prairieville, Louisiana, when she was just 16 years old, she survived a suicide attempt. Today, Emma is a powerful motivational speaker, whose miraculous story and message of hope inspires audiences of all ages. Emma, welcome to you matter.
Emma Benoit 01:26
Thank you for having me.
Karen Ortman 01:27
My pleasure. So Emma, tell me what was your childhood like, in Louisiana?
Emma Benoit 01:36
Oh, it was a wonderful childhood childhood, I grew up with a very great older brother, he was my best friend growing up. And as kids, we were very involved in sports. I started cheerleading when I was very small, and really grabbed on to that passion and just ran with it. And my brother was a baseball player. So we were constantly at tournaments and cheerleading competitions, and always on the go, always moving. Very involved, like I said, with sports and also involved, you know, with school and things like that. And I had, you know, my friends growing up, and I really had a very typical childhood. You know, I didn't really have very many things to worry about the best thing that I had to worry about was coming in before the street lights turned on. So growing up, it was super, duper, typical, normal, casual childhood.
Karen Ortman 02:38
When did you first realize that you were struggling with your mental health?
Emma Benoit 02:43
I guess I would say, I started struggling when I was about 12 years old, about middle school is when I really noticed a difference in myself and my character. And I didn't realize at the time that I was actually suffering with my mental health, and that I was suffering with anxyeah.iety and grow into depression.
Karen Ortman 03:08
Yeah. What did you think you were experiencing? Because you didn't know at that age, at that time that it was anxiety and depression.
Emma Benoit 03:21
I truly had no idea. The exposure for mental health or me growing up was very minimal. Quite frankly, I'd never heard the word mental health used together. So for me feeling what I was feeling and experiencing the really overwhelming feelings, and just not really understanding how to navigate or what to do with my emotions. As a young child, and not understanding any of it. I felt really alone and just really confused and lost with life.
Karen Ortman 03:55
Yeah. Could you describe what you were feeling at that time?
Emma Benoit 04:05
It was a combination of things I would say. And I wasn't consistently sad. And that's kind of a misconception that society paints depression as is just constant sadness. And that really wasn't the case because I did have happy days, I did have great days, pleasant times. Overall, as a child, I really started to feel the heavy cloud of depression and feel not sad all the time, but not feeling like I can ever truly be happy about something and just not really having true genuine joy that I did have as a young child. So that's kind of the overall feeling that experiencing was just an overall sense of in contentment.
Karen Ortman 04:56
Okay. Were you able to share your struggles with anyone; your Parents, your brother, friends, school?
Emma Benoit 05:05
You know, I did definitely open up to them. Whenever I felt like I couldn't hold anything in anymore. But that never really went so well. Because I always felt super shameful for feeling what I was feeling because, you know, I thought there was this certain criteria that had to be met in order to be suffering with your mental health. And I simply didn't think that I met that criteria, because outside circumstances of my life was so perfect, seemingly. So, you know, whenever I would try to open up about these things, and express how I was feeling, I just would feel so guilty and shameful, that I would, you know, kind of not really, fully express the full truth of what I was feeling. So there were times when I did open up, but they weren't going to get anywhere because I wasn't fully accepting of what I was feeling.
Karen Ortman 06:07
Yeah, the shame and the stigma exists today, unfortunately, I could imagine how it was, you know, eight years ago, 10 years ago. Did anyone ever observe the changes in you, without you saying anything?
Emma Benoit 06:29
They did. But the the trickiest part about this, in my opinion, when you're dealing with a teenager who is struggling with their mental health is signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and struggles kind of mirror, the typical traditional teenage girl, right. So like, my parents obviously saw that I was hanging out with different people and behaving in ways that typically weren't a part of my character. And, you know, being easier to anger and just isolating myself from my family, you know, staying in my room, more things like that. And while they did pick up on those types of behavior, they never really even knew to look for something bigger, aside from just your typical teenage girl. So while like I said they did, there were signs that I was exhibiting the exposure and the knowledge around all of this stuff was, like you said very minimal 8, 10 years ago,
Karen Ortman 07:38
when did you start thinking about taking your own life?
Emma Benoit 07:45
I began having suicidal ideations probably in high school. And for me, those suicidal ideations manifested in ways or manifested in thoughts, rather, like, you know, I'd be in my car or in a car with my friends. And just wondering, or hoping, rather, that I, if we could swerve into the other lane, and, you know, crash into the other car, and, you know, everything would just be over. And I would not have to put up and just live this life that was seemingly so exhausting for me to live. Because I was struggling so badly. And I was so shameful for the feelings that I was carrying, I did put on a front and I did, you know, build this character in this facade of a person. And so being around my peers, being around my coaches, and my teachers, I felt really exhausted at the end of every day, having to put on this front. So those suicidal ideations kind of coincided with the feeling of being so exhausted, of living a lie. But I never, my thoughts never got to the point of actively thinking of suicide in a way of creating a plan. That was the thing that I never experienced. During this time, did you seek any resource, any counseling, therapy, anything? Um, no, I did not. I was so afraid of the future and just everything that was ahead of me. I'm so terrified of the unknown. And so I really just surpressed everything and just I internalized everything that I was feeling. And just, you know, I didn't ever want to be perceived as weak and, you know, growing up, it was, I heard and I guess over time, I learned to view someone who is open about their struggles or someone who seek help as a weaker person. So, you know, growing up with that type of mentality really hindered me from even thinking that reaching out for help was something that was plausible for me to be doing. Because I never wanted to be perceived as weak or, like I was struggling so bad, you know. So that was definitely something that I was trying to protect. So, never reached out for help, never sought help. And when I did think of reaching out for help, that thought did pop into my mind, I'm hearing there, but I would always invalidate myself and say, I'm going to leave that for people who have real problems, because my problems aren't real problems.
Karen Ortman 10:42
So it was never an option for you.
Emma Benoit 10:46
No, never an option.
Karen Ortman 10:50
There came a time when you were a senior in high school, where you ultimately made a decision that you were going to take your own life. And miraculously, thankfully, you were not successful. And you are here to talk about that. Tell me about that day.
Emma Benoit 11:24
So to give a little context of that day, so three days prior to my suicide attempt, I was in New York City, on a modeling trip with local photographer, and I had just gotten accepted into our program for seniors. So it was a senior photography company, and she was trying to promote her business and kind of rallied around some seniors. And I got chosen for one of the spots, there were eight spots. And on that trip, I really found my joy again, and I really was able to let go of everything that had been happening back at home, and really just be present, and not worry about the past or think about the future. And just like I said, be present and the girls that were on the trip. Some of them I had friendships with but none of them I was super close with. So it was kind of like, I had some time to be free and kind of escape from everything that I had been living, you know, for the last couple of years. So being on that kind of life high, and then having having to come home, back down to my reality, where circumstances at the time were not, not healthy and not going in my favor. It really was kind of like a shock to me. And so that day in particular, it was during the summertime and to give a little more context. I would have been at cheerleading practice during the summertime had I chosen to try out for my senior year, I chose not to try out my senior year Because I completely lost passion. I didn't feel, you know, worthy of being on the squad. I didn't feel like my team needed me. And looking back now knowing what I know, those were clear warning signs that I was actually struggling with something much bigger. But you know that day, I should have been at practice, but I was at home with nothing to do. And like I said, circumstances were not great. And you know, I had been struggling. And, you know, I had a moment of crisis. And the opportunity presented itself. And I acted on impulse. I attempted suicide on June 7 of 2017. During the summertime, before my senior year of high school,
Karen Ortman 14:03
you were not successful. What were your first thoughts when you realize that you were not successful and you were still here?
Emma Benoit 14:10
I used a firearm to attempt suicide. And immediately after I pulled the trigger I had Instant Regret. everything that I wish I had thought of prior to attempting immediately I thought of after attempting. And it was almost like everything that I had went through all the feelings that I've been feeling for the last couple of years. And everything that led me to choosing to do something like that All just kind of went away. And the only thing that I cared about was living and getting to tell my family, my friends, that I didn't mean to do it, and I do want to be alive. And so it was almost like instantaneous that this regret overcame me and I knew in that moment that I just really wanted to survive and my ideation completely shifted.
Karen Ortman 15:07
You went from desperately not wanting to be here to to desperately wanting to be here.
Emma Benoit 15:15
Karen Ortman 15:17
So what happened after you came to that realization? What were your injuries as a result of your attempt? Tell me about that.
Emma Benoit 15:28
so because of my attempt, I sustained a spinal cord injury, there was a ton of internal bleeding, and then clots formed, and there was a clot that formed my spinal cord and caused major permanent bruising and damage. And so I was diagnosed a C4 quadriplegic right out of the hospital, and so after surviving something like that, and having all of this regret, and wanting to be alive, yet waking up to this whole new fight, this whole new journey, physically, I was very conflicted. I will say, I never had a thought of suicide again. But I was very conflicted, and I was almost brought back to a new state of depression. but at the same time, humbled as well and kind of woken up in a way as well.
Karen Ortman 16:35
how long were you in the hospital? How long was your recovery?
Emma Benoit 16:43
I was in the hospital for about four months, I would say, give or take. It was an extensive hospital stay, I went from an emergency hospital in the ICU to a rehab hospital where I was inpatient there for majority of the time that I was in the hospital. And I underwent several surgeries, and multiple procedures, and immediately started working on my physical recovery. I was in physical therapy every single day, occupational therapy every single day, as well as speech therapy, to repair and heal and treat the damage from the strokes that I suffered in surgery, as well. So it was kind of like three things at once that I was having to work on. And I never really, during that time, I never really even thought about the emotional and mental journey that was to come after, you know, focusing on the physical because my injuries were so crucial and critical that had I not began the physical journey right when I did, I wouldn't I wouldn't have regained and recovered as much as I have.
Karen Ortman 18:02
Did you seek any form of therapy following this Attempt?
Emma Benoit 18:11
Yes, I absolutely did. The first therapist that I spoke to actually came to the rehab hospital where I was living at the time. And that was my first experience ever speaking about these things, really unpacking everything. And my first step on to my mental health journey. And since then, I have continued that journey in a series of different ways. But immediately, whenever I got into the rehab hospital, therapy began today, I have regained majority of my abilities, I have full movement and function, and all of my limbs and I have full feeling in all of my body, I can walk assisted short distances. I am in a manual wheelchair, which is great because I was in an electric wheelchair for the majority of my stay. And I live independently as well. I live on my own and I, you know, I travel and I do things that never in a million years thought that I would ever be able to do again. And you know, I'm able to drive and I've really come a great way.
Karen Ortman 19:27
that's wonderful. How has your perspective on life changed Since your attempt and recovery to the point where you have recovered today?
Emma Benoit 19:45
Oh it is so greatly changed. And it's still changing. It's ever evolving. I feel like as I learn more, and you know, experience more. but I would say the biggest thing that has changed about me is just my overall consistent hope. I never lose hope. And in this journey I've regained so much patience and understanding for life and for what it is and just, I now know what's different about me now versus then. before a bad day would mean a bad life. And I had such a hard time rationalizing and compartmentalizing when things happened bad and when things didn't go, right. And I couldn't, I could never get let things go. I would always fixate on things and always try to please people. And I was a real perfectionist, which I'm a recovering perfectionist. That's not to say I'm perfect now. But I am working on these things daily. But overall, I just, I understand that we're going to have bad days, we're going to have bad times, we're going to go through things, life is going to give you challenges and trials and tribulations. But it's all about what you do with it and how you respond to it. And I've really just learned so much and gained such a greater perspective of life. And it's really come full circle for me.
Karen Ortman 21:27
Tell me about the movie, My Ascension.
Emma Benoit 21:32
So the documentary My Ascension is basically a documentary film that encompasses my story, and the story of two other young people who unfortunately lost their fight to suicide. And that journey, the documentary started Whenever I came home from the hospital, I had to do something I had to get all this emotion out. So my mom encouraged me to start blogging, and then I decided to publish my website and put the blogs on there. And through that, the producer found my story and reached out to me and asked me to be a part of the panel for Kevin Hines documentary at the time suicide ripple effect. They were premiering it in Baton Rouge. So he reached out to me and I agreed. And that was the first time that I shared my story. And then from then on, we just started filming and created this documentary That's called My Ascension.
Karen Ortman 22:33
And Kevin Hines is a suicide attempt survivor. I believe he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. Right?
Emma Benoit 22:45
Karen Ortman 22:47
also incredibly inspirational individual who does so much for mental health?
Emma Benoit 22:54
Karen Ortman 22:56
Tell me about the title, My Ascension.
Emma Benoit 23:00
So it's very symbolic. So kind of the less symbolic part of it is, I was raised in parish called Ascension Parish. And if you're unfamiliar with parishes, it's the same as a county or borough. So my hometown is Ascension Parish. And so that kind of is what ties it all in together. But the major meaning behind the word ascension, the root word of ascension is to ascend. And so when you ascend, you essentially rise. And so the entire film kind of encompasses my journey of rising above my struggles and rising above my physical challenges, and then ultimately, showing others that they too can rise above and just embody hope. So it's very symbolic and very personal to me.
Karen Ortman 23:56
I think that the The documentary is so inspirational in how it can educate audiences, especially young people, I applaud you for your efforts.
Emma Benoit 24:10
Thank you. I appreciate that.
Karen Ortman 24:14
So how can young people such as yourself, become empowered to ask for help when they're feeling any of the effects of mental health, depression, anxiety, OCD, whatever the case might be, and they're reluctant to, much like you were, you know, to, to talk to anybody because it's perceived as a sign of weakness, and then there's the stigma associated with it.
Emma Benoit 24:41
if you're struggling right now and you are afraid or shameful or anything like that, to the idea of getting help, I would just encourage you to embrace what you're feeling, embrace what you're going through. Because it's totally okay not to be okay. And that's it. Something I wish I would have realized when I was growing up is that you don't always have to be okay. And you don't always have to be having a good day or a good time. And it is so strong and a sign of strength to reach out for help and to put your needs first. It's oftentimes when you're when you're a youth, I can speak from my experience, you feel bad for asking for help you feel bad for employing others to assist you with something because you feel like they already have so much to worry about. You don't want to burden them. You don't want to scare or upset them. Which my advice to you on that front is people who love and care about you want you to come to them with things like that. And they're going to be willing to help you and support you through that. So I always say you should treat yourself like someone you're responsible for taking care of. Because if you don't take care of your own self You you're neglecting yourself. And, you know, it's the easiest way to show yourself Self love is to take care of yourself. the stigma has no place, right? Because if someone had a broken arm or a sprained ankle, or a back injury, or neck injury, they will wear a brace, they would wear a neck collar, right? And people would visibly know they're hurting. It should be seen and treated no different as your mental health. Yeah. And when you have broken bones, you're not ashamed to ask for help. Right.
Karen Ortman 26:51
But when it's mental health there is a, you know, that shame and that stigma associated with asking, which is the point of our conversation, because we want to get rid of that stigma.
Emma Benoit 27:04
And I think it's important to add to that, you know, nobody's perfect. Nobody has it all together. So this high expectation, this high standard that we all have, as a society that we've got to always be together, we got to always know where we're going in life, we, you know, it's just completely false. And it's a warped narrative. So I just think it's all about just being more real, and just being more human. And just, you know, understanding that we've all got struggles, we've all had moments in our lives where we don't know what else to do.
Karen Ortman 27:49
So what do you do for enjoyment now?
Emma Benoit 27:56
Actually a lot of things I really since having gone through all this, I really realized that I need to prioritize my needs. And I need to have boundaries. So I have kind of a lot of hobbies, I love to read, I like thrillers, those are pretty much the only novel that I can really enjoy is a thriller. I like to travel which I get to do kind of a lot these days, which I'm so fortunate and so blessed that I get to do. I like to eat, I like to go out to dinner and do things like that. My boyfriend is trying to get me into camping. So we're gonna go on our intro to camping trip this March. So, yeah, I really just find joy in the little things. I'm just really being present with whatever I'm doing wherever I'm at. Thatseems to be the greatest new addition to my life is just being present and finding joy wherever I'm at.
Karen Ortman 28:58
Good for you. Is there anything that we haven't talked about that you would like to share?
Emma Benoit 29:03
Um, I'm pretty sure we hit on everything. The film, a story, yeah, I think we've I actually covered it in the conversation.
Karen Ortman 29:13
Yeah I actually have a question. If somebody is interested in viewing the film, my ascension, where would they find it?
Emma Benoit 29:21
So currently, we are offering screening options on our website. that would be the number one way to check out how to get your hands on the film is through the website, which is just www.myascension.us. And then also to know, we are going to be doing a version of the film this September on PBS. So we're working on kind of breaking it down because it can't be the full film on television. So we are kind of having to edit it a bit, but there will be a version of the film available on PBS in September.
Karen Ortman 29:58
What has the feedback been so far on the film?
Emma Benoit 30:02
it's been wonderful every time that we get an opportunity to share the film. And furthermore, when I get to go out and share the film, the response has been wonderful. And just about every time that we've shared the film, there have been more requests and more people wanting to host an event and do this, do a screening, and things like that. So the momentum is definitely there, which is so incredible, and it empowers me, you know, to know that this message is being well received, and that people actually do care and want to be a part of the difference.
Karen Ortman 30:40
Yeah, I'm sure you're reaching a lot of people when you do these events.
Emma Benoit 30:45
We really try to and I cannot even imagine how many people, you know, we've been able to help and touch I mean, just based off of the people that have approached me and reach out to me. It's very overwhelming, but in a great way.
Karen Ortman 31:05
Yeah. I'm sure that you are the person for others that you probably wish you had for yourself.
Emma Benoit 31:12
Definitely. Yeah, so wish that there would have been, you know, opportunities, you know, for my school and my community to have events like these, fand hear a story like this, you know, Because oftentimes, when I get to talk to the youth and teenagers, they always will tell me like that they just feel so comfortable with me. And they feel like they can just share anything with me. And so, I mean, I definitely wish...
Karen Ortman 31:43
I think you definitely have found your purpose.
Emma Benoit 31:46
Absolutely. And that was something too, that I was really struggling with was not ever feeling like I had a place. Not ever feeling like I would find a place of people of you know, interest, you know, potential careers, things like that. I was completely purposeless, you know that's what I felt like, but definitely, I feel this is my purpose.
Karen Ortman 32:10
Yeah. Keep going. You're doing tremendous work.
Emma Benoit 32:17
I appreciate that. I have every intention to.
Karen Ortman 32:19
Yeah,. Well, it's my pleasure to meet you. And I thank you so much for joining me today on you matter.
Emma Benoit 32:26
Thank you so much for having me. It's been wonderful. .
Karen Ortman 32:29
My pleasure. So thank you once again, to my guest, Emma, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter if any information presented was triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU's Department of Campus Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share, like, and subscribe to You Matter on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or Tune in.