MY ASCENSION: A Documentary Film To Spread Hope and Fight Suicide

Chris Hadley
13 min readApr 28, 2020

On the outside, 16 year old Emma Benoit seemed to have a perfect life: academic success, varsity cheerleader, devoted friends and family, limitless potential. Hidden from everyone, though, was her emotional struggle with anxiety and depression; one that led to Benoit attempting to take her own life with her father’s handgun on June 7, 2017.

Directed by Greg Dicharry (Suicide: The Ripple Effect), the upcoming documentary film My Ascension chronicles Emma’s remarkable story and shines light on an epidemic that claims the lives of over 20 young people every day in America. Though the attempt left her paralyzed, Benoit undergoes strenuous therapy (as seen in the film) in hopes that she will finally regain the ability to walk unassisted.

Guided by her family, and by the support of pastor/recovery coach/suicide survivor Tonja Myles, Emma overcomes her fear about sharing her story with the world (via her blog “Life Rejuvenated” and public speaking engagements). Through those platforms, she also shares her struggles with anxiety and depression while emphasizing how suicide prevention programs can help other young people.

In addition to the film’s interviews with national experts on suicide prevention, My Ascension also examines the devastation of losing a loved one to suicide as seen through the stories of Emma’s former high school classmate Jacob Moran, and 15 year old Karyn Poche, who initially reached out to Emma online before they met publicly at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Walk. Tragically, though, Karyn ended her life a month after she met Emma at that event.

L-R: Emma Benoit and MY ASCENSION director Greg Dicharry.

Having overcome his own struggles with mental illness and drug abuse, Dicharry has spent 15 years helping people like Benoit live meaningful lives in spite of their challenges with mental health. On my indie film interview show The Viewfinder Podcast, Dicharry and Benoit talked about their collaboration on My Ascension, their efforts to share the film with schools and suicide prevention organizations, and the important mission of My Ascension itself.

My Ascension was slated to premiere in May in Baton Rouge, followed by more screenings across the country. However, those screenings have been temporarily put on hold due to the ongoing coronavirus lockdown. Nonetheless, Dicharry and Benoit hope that My Ascension will officially debut in September in conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Month.

Scheduled to launch sometime in early May (day and date to be announced) is Benoit’s new Instagram/Facebook program #RiseUpWithEmma, which features Benoit’s conversations with guests who’ve dedicated themselves to improving lives and offering hope in uncertain times. In the meantime, you can hear my Viewfinder Podcast conversation with Dicharry and Benoit on iTunes, and an edited text version of our interview appears herein.

Chris Hadley: Emma, how did you and Greg first get together on this project?

Emma Benoit: I met Greg through his sister, Taylor. She reached out to me because I had a blog that I was posting on, and she came across my blog. At the time, Greg had just finished Suicide: The Ripple Effect and she sent my web site and all my information to Greg. Then he reached out to me, we got together, and the rest is history.

CH: How did hearing Kevin’s story help you?

EB: Honestly, Kevin Hines (the subject of Suicide: The Ripple Effect) was the first person I ever heard speak out about their attempt. I was just taken aback by his courage and it inspired me to be courageous enough to share my experiences, as well. He really motivated and inspired me to open up and be vulnerable and share my journey with the world.

CH: Greg, how did you help Emma get her story out to the world with My Ascension?

Greg Dicharry (director, My Ascension): I was really inspired by her story and all she had overcome and how she was using that to help others through her blog. We had the premiere of Suicide: The Ripple Effect coming up in Baton Rouge (at the 2018 Louisiana International Film Festival) and I talked to her about possibly being part of a panel discussion after the film.

I came out to her house, met her and her parents, and shared what we were talking about doing. I asked if I could bring my camera along. So I did, and we did an impromptu interview, which initially I was thinking would be like a PSA or some kind of promotional thing to spread the message of suicide awareness and hope. I was so compelled by Emma, her story and her family. Maybe a month or two later, we decided to embark on this journey and make a full documentary project.

Suicide survivor and suicide prevention advocate Emma Benoit’s remarkable story is told in the upcoming documentary film MY ASCENSION.

CH: Seeing what Emma had in her life, and seeing her going through depression at the same time, is quite a juxtaposition.

GD: Definitely. A lot of things were interesting. With Kevin, he lives with some very significant mental health issues. But a significant portion of young people who die by suicide don't have a diagnosable mental illness or have not been diagnosed. Emma is one of those cases, and so we see a lot of people around the country who are dying by suicide or who attempt suicide who could really identify with Emma, where they might not identify with someone who has a really serious mental illness.

CH: Emma, how far along are you in your physical recovery? What’s it been like?

EB: It’s been really hard. It’s still a daily thing, (but) I definitely came a lot further than I ever would have imagined coming. For me there’s still a lot more to be done and a lot more to accomplish, but it’s been an uphill battle. It’s just very intense physical therapy, re-learning how to function and re-teaching my system how to operate in the way that it was created to (operate). It’s a very complex injury, and unfortunately, until you personally go through it or have someone close to you go through it, you don’t truly understand. I’m still learning every day how complex everything is.

CH: Greg, how did the experience of making Suicide: The Ripple Effect prepare you for making My Ascension?

GD: I think it definitely gave me practice in making a professional-level film. I also had really connected with the subject matter. I would say that my personal experience in mental health and what I do for my day job has really been the most beneficial. Back in 2008 I started a youth program called My Life for the company I work for, Magellan Health. It's geared towards young people (ages 13-23) who experience mental health issues.

A lot of those people have been suicidal and have attempted suicide, and a big part of that program is working with young people to help them utilize their negative experiences as a positive by being able to help other young people by sharing their stories and by advocating.

That’s been beneficial in terms of working with Emma to help her further develop her story, her mission, and what she wants to do, along with helping her to be able to operationalize that. In the process, we filmed (her story) so that other people can see it and learn from her efforts and be inspired by them.

CH: Even before My Ascension’s release, what impact have you seen from sharing Emma’s story?

EB: Even since before I met Greg and before my story was so publicly known, it impacted my community tremendously. It was something that no one really could suspect, so it was so unexpected. My entire community was shook, but then after I met Greg and we started to promote my story and suicide awareness and prevention and all these things, it was just insane (to meet) the people you meet and (to hear) the stories you hear. It's just mind-blowing.

GD: A counselor who had come to (see) Suicide: The Ripple Effect and then (went to) the presentation for social workers that we did reached out and said that she had a 15-year old, Nyvea, who was extremely suicidal and they had been trying everything, but nothing was working. (She asked), “do you think there would be any way that Emma would be able to speak to her?” So Emma went and met with her and her family, and at the end of the meeting Nyvea said, “I have this weird feeling…it’s called hope”.

CH: Emma, has anyone who read your blog ever contacted you with their stories?

EB: A lot of people have, especially in the very beginning, whenever I just launched my website and was posting blogs and stories about everything that happened and the whys and the hows and the whats and everything. A lot of people were intrigued and a lot of people felt like they could talk to me because they can relate to me.

Still to this day, people reach out to me through my website - not so much sharing their stories anymore, but also letting me know that they came across the website. So it's really nice and refreshing to hear the feedback from everyone.

CH: Emma, how has working with Greg, plus the blog and sharing your story with everyone (even though at first you were extremely reluctant to do so) served as its own form of emotional therapy?

EB: I was very reluctant and hesitant towards being vulnerable and sharing my story and more than that, my journey because the story is much more than a suicide attempt. It has so many (more) layers and much more depth to it.

The scariest part was letting people into my life and things that I deal with, but the more I did it and the more people I met and the more stories and testimonies I heard from other people and the more people that reached out to me, (I knew) that me sharing a journey or a story or an experience of mine really encouraged them to open up and not hold everything themselves. It would be the feedback from other people that has helped me most with this emotional recovery and accepting everything.

CH: How is My Ascension helping people overcome the stigma of talking about their depression with others?

EB: I think just having a film out there surrounding or around the topic of suicide is going to start conversations. That's my hope for the film. There's a lot that can be taken from the film. I think that just the film being put out there alone, I would hope, is going to start a conversation and get people talking and viewing this whole epidemic of suicide in a different light, from different perspectives.

GD: I think that’s the big piece of seeing it in a different light. I think with any kind of a stigma or misconception, it’s based on a lack of information or lack of knowledge and having this idea in your head of what somebody who dies by suicide is like or looks like and what they’re dealing with.

With Emma being someone who you would not think would (do) this or not have any problems because she’s a cheerleader, she’s pretty, she’s got lots of friends, etc., that makes the issue much more accessible. It takes you aback because you think, "what kind of problems does she have? She has a lot going for her," and that really gets to the core of the issue because it’s not an external thing. It’s about what’s on the inside.

A big part of why she did what she did was because she didn’t want to talk about it, because she was fearful that people (would) think she was weak or (they’d) look down on her or whatnot. I think one of the things (we’re trying to accomplish through the film) is really encouraging people (to) speak up, talk about it, (and to) tell somebody what you’re going through.

L-R: Benoit and Dicharry at the 2018 Louisiana International Film Festival.

EB: Before my attempt I had never really put much thought into suicide, mainly because it wasn’t really ever talked about. It was never a word that was really brought up but the instant thought when I heard that word was negative. That word has such a negative connotation and so you automatically associate everything negative with suicide.

So I, of course, felt ashamed of it because of the negative light it is seen in and how, like (Greg) said, I didn’t want people to think that I was weak or (that) anything was wrong or anything like that. Mainly it was because I was ashamed because like Greg said, from the outside it looks like I don’t have anything to be upset over or sad about or whatever the case may be.

GD: From my own experience, that too can be something that really eats at you when you deal with depression and these sorts of things - particularly when you have a lot going on and a lot of stuff that you should be grateful for but for whatever reason, you can’t focus on that because you have so much in your head. So then you feel even worse because you feel like, "wow, I feel this bad and look at all the stuff that I have", so that’s another whole thing.

I think another big way this (film) is really going to help people is because although the big topic is suicide, it really dives deeper into what young people go through and deal with as they’re coming of age and (into) the kind of issues that can result in this negative view of themselves that, yes, sometimes can result in suicide but a lot results in things like substance abuse or self-harm or just low (self) image.

As part of the film, Emma works to bring Hope Squad (the national school based suicide prevention program) to Louisiana. Hope Squad trains students to help their peers and reduce stigma in their schools and community. That program was started at Lutcher High School and has been very effective thus far, and is doing a tremendous amount to reduce stigma in that community.

EB: (I’m) taking it day by day and learning to be merciful for myself and understanding that it’s okay that I don’t have it all figured out and it’s not the end of the world if I don’t know who I am and what I want to do and what my future holds, because all those thoughts put a lot of pressure on myself.

I’m sure (that’s how it is for) a lot of other people too. So identity is a huge issue, especially now with girls (in) high school. I see it all the time. I hear about it all the time. (Girls) just don’t know what they want, what they’re doing with their lives and that’s hard.

GD: Especially when you interject the social media aspect of things and everyone’s striving to be perfect or keep up with (the) next girl or (dealing with) various negative things like cyber bullying and all that stuff. The other key issue that Emma and Karen both had in common was this pressure related to school and the desire to be perfect and (to) get perfect grades and all the things that come along with that. There’s just an immense pressure to succeed academically, which can also create a lot of anxiety.

Benoit tells her story to the camera during filming of MY ASCENSION.

CH: What other organizations have you been working with to get the film out to people?

GD: Locally, we're close with the Baton Rouge Crisis Intervention Center and (its executive director) Dr. Frank Campbell is in the film. Nationally we've been blessed to be connected with (some) of the major mental health and suicide prevention organizations (like) the National Suicide Prevention Association, Mental Health America and the National Federation of Familes of Children’s Mental Health.

One of our main goals is to get this film in as many schools as possible not only during the daytime, but then to also have evening (screenings) for families and communities. What we’ve really done is made a film that’s entertaining.

It’s inspirational but it’s also (a film about) how to replicate these types of areas in your own community, whether it be starting a Hope Squad or getting involved in a suicide prevention walk or survivors’ support (group) for people who have been impacted from suicide (which is featured in the film), or from somebody connecting with local organizations, (or) sharing your story.

CH: Greg, how has the experience of meeting Emma and hearing hers and the other stories in My Ascension affected you - both personally and as a filmmaker?

GD: It’s definitely impactful any time you meet someone that’s had some really significant challenges and is still overcoming those, especially when you’ve got a person that’s turning that tragedy into finding a way to help others.

If you or someone you love needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741.

See the official trailer for My Ascension here:

https://youtu.be/zYGs0Z2lW6Y

Find out more about My Ascension via the film’s web site:

https://www.myascension.us/

For more information on Hope Squad, visit:

https://hopesquad.com/

Visit the Facebook page for the Lutcher High School (Louisiana) chapter of Hope Squad:

https://facebook.com/lhshopesquad

YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/c/myascension

FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/myascension

TWITTER: @myascensionfilm

INSTAGRAM: @myascensionmovie

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Chris Hadley

Writer, @SnobbyRobot, @FSMOnlineMag, Writer/Creator, @LateLateNewsTV