Let's get serious about mental health

Local showing of ‘My Ascension’ at WL High School accentuates mental illness


“I just remember hearing the ringing in my ears and I could taste the gunpowder,” says Emma Benoit, who at 16 pulled a gun on herself and attempted suicide.

“There were like a million and one thoughts going through my head,” she says, “The first one was, ‘What did I just do? I don’t want to die.’”

Benoit is the subject of “My Ascension,” a 2021 documentary chronicling her life before and after her suicide attempt, shown at West Liberty High School on Wednesday, Jan. 7.

It’s a dark, but revealing, look into the mind of a young girl whose struggle with mental illness nearly cost her life. Mental health was the theme of the evening.

Students and community members gathered in the high school auditorium to watch the film, afterwards they had a discussion about mental health and illness.

The event was organized by community member Kira Achen, who believes everyone has been affected by mental health problems in one way or another.

“I saw the film at the Iowa Memorial Union last year,” recalls Achen. “I went home, and I thought we have to have this done in West Liberty.”

So that’s exactly what happened. She got in touch with the WL Rotary Club, after which WL Foods and WL State Bank jumped in as sponsors.

“The school district immediately said yes, let’s do it,” says Achen, who is currently a board member. “Then we just got a lot of people involved.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as well as the I’m Glad You Stayed Project were present at the event, advocating for the importance of good mental health.

That included 20-year-old Abbey Schley, Iowa City. In March of 2021 her friend Dylan told her he was planning to commit suicide. She didn’t know what to do, so she called 911.

Unfortunately, Dylan didn’t make it.

“You have to take every threat of suicide as something serious, call 911, or call 988, they are willing to help you,” she says, 988 being the Suicide Crisis Lifeline.

“After that I felt survivors’ guilt, and I wanted to do something to honor Dylan,” she says. Eventually she started the I’m Glad You Stayed Project in his honor.

The project hands out bracelets and literature with information that “I didn’t have for Dylan, but I wish I did,” she says. It has resources in 43 U.S. Sates and beyond.

Chris Martin, MSW, LMSW, PhD, local mental health advocate and prominent community member led the discussion after the movie.

She made it clear that mental health and mental illness are two different topics. Everyone has mental health; however, mental illness negatively affects a person's thinking, perceptions, mood, or behavior.

Every day in the U.S. 20 young people died by suicide. According to the Iowa Department of Mental Health, death by suicide increased overall between 2015 and 2020 in Iowa.

Iowa ranked 21st for the highest suicide rate among all U.S. states in 2019. In 2020 suicide was the eighth leading cause of death of all ages, and the second leading cause for ages 15-34.

In fact, suicide is many more times common than homicide in Iowa.

“We won’t always know when a kid is struggling, there won’t always be tell-tale signs,” said Martin. She believes mental illness needs more recognition.

“We have a responsibility as a community to start doing things, to have these conversations,” she said. “What are we doing to create that in our community and our school?”

Perhaps one answer is NAMI, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.

Laurie Edge works for NAMI of the Greater Mississippi Valley, which is located in Davenport. On the Iowa side, it is affiliated with Muscatine, Scott, Jackson, Clinton and Cedar counties.

“For the last couple of years, I’ve been coming to West Liberty, networking, creating relationships in the community looking to bring NAMI services to this area,” she said.

“I am happy to announce that we have a couple of volunteers who are being trained, and we will have our first seminar and first education program soon,” she said.

Edge was referring to a couple of upcoming mental health and illness learning opportunities that will be offered in West Liberty in the next few months.

The first will be a 90-minute seminar on March 21, 6-7:30 p.m. at First Church United. Register online at https://bit.ly/49nEQTD.

Participants will learn the skills to address health illness concerns, effective communication, the importance of self-care and more.

The second will be a peer-to-peer education program, a series of eight classes held every Thursday, April 4-May 23, from 6-8:30 p.m. at First Church United.

Course topics will include family response trauma, how to deal with diagnoses, biology of the brain, problem solving, medication and more. Register online at https://bit.ly/3OwNgAb.

“The course is for families who have a member that has, or hasn’t been, diagnosed with a mental health condition,” said Edge.

It was a somber, but educational evening. The story of Emma Benoit is far too common among the youth. Unfortunately, they don’t often survive a suicide attempt.

“Have those conversations about mental health,” emphasized Martin, “Talk about mental health, talk about emotional health.”

“Always ask the question, ‘Are you feeling suicidal, are you considering hurting yourself, and what resources can I provide you, what do you need?’” she said.

mental, health, illness