This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
In June 2017, then 16-year-old Emma Benoit, a varsity cheerleader in Louisiana who described herself as a "picture-perfect American girl," attempted suicide. She survived but was left with serious injuries. Since then, Benoit has spoken about teen mental health and suicide and she is featured in the documentary film, “My Ascension.” Benoit shares her thoughts about teens, mental health and suicide with TODAY.
I first remember experiencing anxiety as early as grade school. Then it became bigger and bigger. By high school, the depression began. The two felt constant in my life for five to six years. I never said anything because I didn’t know what I was feeling. I had such little exposure to mental health that I didn’t even have the language to discuss what I was experiencing. No one ever addressed mental health with me until after it was too late. I also had this sense that sharing dark feelings came with a stigma. So I kept quiet.
I had this sense that sharing dark feelings came with a stigma. So I kept quiet.
This meant I felt isolated and alone. I thought there was just something wrong with me and I was the problem causing these feelings. But couldn’t do anything about it. I told myself that therapy was for people with more serious problems than mine.
This lack of community and conversation about mental health factored into what caused me to attempt suicide. But the pervasive feeling that caused me to try to end my life was overwhelming hopelessness. I wanted my pain to end. (Editor's note: TODAY does not go into detail about methods used for suicides or suicide attempts.) Almost immediately, I regretted what I had done. I knew I truly did not want to die.
When I woke in the hospital, it was clear that I had many physical injuries. My journey involved a lot of physical recovery, and I first focused my energy on that. I was paralyzed from the neck down, which meant I was quadriplegic. I needed to relearn how to care for myself. I also experienced several blood clots in my brain that led to a series of strokes and cognitive issues. I needed to go to speech, occupational and physical therapy. I’ve regained about 80% of my abilities, but I do use a wheelchair at times. I can now walk and drive and experience some sensation in my limbs and torso. But the nerves in my left hand were severed, so I can’t use those fingers very well.
While in the hospital I couldn’t remember what exactly happened — I believe my brain was trying to protect me from those tough memories. When I arrived home, everything rushed back. I felt like both a victim and the perpetrator at the same time. I had this challenging injury that required me to relearn much of how I did things. But I’m the one who inflicted it on me.
After working on my physical health, I focused on my emotional strength. Receiving a diagnosis of depression and anxiety felt groundbreaking. I now had words to describe what I experienced. But it also made it feel more real. While that could feel scary, it also felt empowering because it felt like something I could work with. The therapists I met made it clear that I could successfully receive treatment and live with mental illness. It gave me hope and perspective that I had been lacking.
As I was recovering, so many people said, “Not Emma.” No one expected that I would attempt to die by suicide. That’s one reason why it’s important to share my story: I want parents to recognize the warning signs in their children. Looking back, the biggest signal that something was wrong was when I skipped a cheerleading tryout. After a lifetime of loving the sport, I simply stopped caring. I began hanging out with new friends that I otherwise wouldn’t have befriended. I became angered easily and often felt frustrated — both huge character shifts for me.
It’s tough because sometimes people do experience frustration or make new friends, and it’s not always a cry for help. I do wish someone would have talked to me about my feelings so that I didn’t feel alone and struggle so much.
I encourage parents to err on the side of caution. If their teen starts acting differently or suddenly becomes uninterested in something they once loved, ask them about it. It might be nothing. But if it’s something, that conversation could be the start of a dialogue that could lead to them getting help that they need. I hope that parents start bringing up mental health and make sure their children know that if they face difficulties, they can talk to their parents. I didn’t know that mental health was something I could discuss.
I am on a mission to share my story by taking my documentary to communities and anyone who will listen, to help them open up their own conversations about mental health. I hope it encourages other people who are struggling to be vulnerable with a loved one. I want them to understand they are not alone and there is help — and that you can overcome your mental health challenges and thrive.
This interview has been edited and condensed.