MANKATO — Immediately after Emma Benoit attempted to end her life, she remembers the ringing in her ears, the taste of gunpowder, and how much she didn’t want to die.
The Louisiana native, 22, shares that raw memory from when she was 16 in her documentary, “My Ascension,” detailing how she turned her experience into a personal mission to help young people struggling with depression and anxiety.
She shared the film and talked to Mankato East High School students Wednesday ahead of events with Mankato West students Thursday. A public screening of the film and discussion also was scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at West.
The events, planned well in advance, come as students at both schools continue to grieve the losses of classmates to suicide this year and last year.
Benoit hopes talking about the issue shows young people that hope and help are out there. If the anonymous student questions submitted to her Wednesday are any indication, young people were ready to talk about it.
“When you’re struggling, the most important thing to do is reach out for help,” she said before the screening. “You’re not alone, and silence will never keep you safe.”
Wednesday was the first student-centered event with Benoit in Mankato, although it wasn’t her first time here. She participated in the Out of Darkness community walk and fundraiser supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention earlier this month and held an evening film screening at Mankato East.
Mel and Todd Hoffner sponsored the screening after losing their 13-year-old daughter, Mara, to suicide in May 2021. Mara would’ve been a Mankato East student this year.
The loss of Hoffner and then a student at Mankato West last week, combined with rising mental health struggles at so many schools in the country right now, make suicide prevention events so important, said Mankato East Principal Jeff Dahline.
“In our country right now mental health is a big deal,” he said. “And (so is) getting people the help they need and the opportunity to talk to professionals about how they’re feeling and be much more transparent than we’ve ever been in our society.”
Students submitted more than 100 questions for Benoit through an anonymous page set up during the event. From her wheelchair — she didn’t regain full use of her legs after her suicide attempt — she answered several after the screening, along with meeting with a long line of students one-on-one afterward.
Ray Stenglein, president of Wings of Hope, a Minnesota nonprofit connecting people to mental health resources, moderated the Q&A. After losing his 16-year-old daughter, Annika Belle, to suicide in 2016, he got involved in suicide prevention and in recent years teamed up with Benoit to bring programming on the subject to Minnesota schools. The Greater Mankato Area United Way helped coordinate the local events.
One anonymous student’s question asked how they can talk to people about how they’re feeling if they feel scared or guilty about it. Benoit drew from her own experience in her response.
It’s a valid emotion, she said, and it may not be a comfortable conversation.
“But it does make you feel a little bit lighter when you share it with someone,” she said. “I know personally, when I fell back into a state of depression after I got home from the hospital, I made a big change and I said I’m not going to internalize these feelings. I’m not going to keep them all tucked away to myself. I’m going to open up and I’m going to share that with my loved ones.”
Another student question asked about ways to help with anxiety.
Benoit encouraged students to support each other and take care not to put too much pressure on themselves.
“You have your whole life ahead of you to figure out what it is you want to do and who you want to be and what you want to study,” she said. “ ... That stress and pressure does affect your mental state, so just remind yourself you have a lot of time to figure all those things out and you don’t have to have it all figured out.”
To a student’s question about how they can help others get through a tough time, Benoit said to remember you don’t need to be a mental health professional to help.
“A lot of times when someone is struggling they’re just looking for someone to talk to, to vent to, and get all that emotion out in the open,” she said. “So the best thing you can do as a support person is be an active listener.”
Benoit held another screening and Q&A for Mankato East students in the afternoon Wednesday. Her Thursday event at West includes meeting with individual classes.
For more information on Benoit’s film, go to www.myascension.us.
The national suicide prevention lifeline offers free support to people in crisis and can be reached via a new, simplified, 988 phone number.
Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola