Louisiana woman paralyzed after suicide attempt shares warning signs of mental health struggles

Published: Nov. 21, 2022 at 10:10 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2022 at 10:32 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A River Parishes woman who tried to kill herself as a teen has made it her mission to save others.

Six years ago, Emma Benoit was a competitive cheerleader from a loving home, a 16-year-old who, on the outside, appeared to have it all.

“I was really struggling with how to navigate my life,” Benoit says. “I felt so much pressure for myself to have it together.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says suicide claims 18 young people every day in the U.S.

For every death, there are 27 self-reported suicide attempts and 275 people who seriously considered suicide, according to the CDC.

CDC suicide stats June 2022
CDC suicide stats June 2022(CDC)

“I grew up thinking that I needed to be pretty all the time and funny all the time and the bubbly one because that’s where I receive my validation,” Benoit says.

She is living proof of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s almost gone.

“I was really hopeless and I made an attempt to take my life,” she explains. “I shot myself in the chest. I gave myself a spinal cord injury.”

Luckily, Emma survived.

“I suffered pretty serious injuries due to the attempt and immediately after I pulled the trigger I regretted my decision,” she says.

For the next three years, Emma worked with physical therapists so she could once again walk.

Now she travels the country, mostly by wheelchair, raising awareness about the factors leading to suicide and how to deal with them.

“The reality is there’s absolutely help out there,” Benoit says. “Resources and people out there willing and ready to listen to you and to support you through what you are going through.”

New Orleans City Councilman Joe Giarrusso and St. Tammany Parish Coroner Dr. Charles Preston, join tens of thousands of Americans each year who have lost loved ones who decided to take their own lives.

“My grandfather was tough and gritty,” Giarrusso says. “But my father was much softer.”

“Both of my brothers were incredibly smart people,” Dr. Preston says. “We have to strip away the shame and strip away the guilt.”

Between 2000-2018 the nation’s suicide rate rose by 36 percent before dropping in 2019 and 2020. Now, suicide rates are on the rise again. In 2021, 47,646 Americans took their own life.

Experts say the recent rise in suicide could be due to isolation brought on by the pandemic.

“My oldest brother had chronic paranoid schizophrenia,” Dr. Preston says. “He was under treatment. Very well controlled. Very successful. Vice President of a huge electronic corporation.”

In spite of his success, Preston’s 47-year-old brother Will spiraled because he wanted to get off anti-depressant medication.

Dr. Preston lost not one, but two brothers to suicide. In addition to Will, Dr. Preston’s 45-year-old brother Steve, a lawyer, also took his own life due to complications from pain medications.

Now, Dr. Preston has made it his mission to try and prevent others from committing suicide by advocating for early intervention.

“What happens now is they go to the emergency room, get committed, go to the psychiatric hospital, restart the medications, get discharged a number of times, deteriorate, become non-compliant,” Dr. Preston says. “Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.”

Dr. Preston administers 500 commitments a year. For families who come seeking outside care for loved ones in distress, he says early managed care is key.

“The first advice is don’t get off your medication because that’s what creates the crisis,” Dr. Preston says.

Giarrusso’s father was a lawyer and a mediator, skilled in verbal communication, which he says made it much tougher to find out what was really going on.

Experts say the suicide rate is four times higher among men than women because men are generally less likely to be open about mental distress.

“I think a lot of times we are afraid to ask somebody ‘how are you doing? How are you feeling?” Giarrusso says.

The councilman says there were no warning signs, but “maybe” signs, like missing church and not being as fastidious in keeping his car clean.

“I know people want to look and say there has to be something,” Giarrusso says. “That was probably depression. And it gets to a point where it’s just too much.”

Benoit says she tried really hard to mask any emotion that might make it seem like she was struggling.

Survivors urge you to seek outside help if you’re feeling distressed or if you suspect it in someone close to you.

Thanks to the establishment of 988, a national suicide prevention hotline, resources are more available than ever.

Four parishes on the North Shore have united to provide free online therapy. Well Connected Northshore provides two therapy sessions a month with unlimited text messaging for 90 days to assist with post-hurricane mental trauma.

Florida Parishes Human Services Authority offers gun locks and therapy to battle the more than 50% of suicides that occur by self-inflicted gunshot wounds.

CDC suicide stats
CDC suicide stats(CDC)

Don Mueller lost his 16-year-old son, Elliott, to suicide just four months ago. Elliott has Asperger’s and was in and out of four mental health facilities during his final year.

“When you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to go hunting for resources,” Mueller says. “We were just trying to keep our son alive.”

Mueller says he wished he had turned to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) before it was too late and urges other parents to fully investigate what services are available.

“If an individual is showing signs of suicide,” says Nick Richard of NAMI. “The best thing you can do is open the door and ask if they need help.”

The CDC says suicide is the second-leading cause of death among children 10-14 years old.

Benoit is now part of a program called Hope Squad that sets up suicide prevention programs in schools.

If you or someone you know is in distress and you fear for their safety, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline by dialing 988.

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