The Journey to ‘My Ascension’: A Q&A with Filmmaker and Teen Mental Health Advocate Greg Dicharry

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Greg Dicharry is the co-director and producer of the award-winning 2018 film Suicide: The Ripple Effect. He is also the creator of the MY LIFE program, one of the nation’s leading programs for youth who experience mental health, substance use, and/or foster care–related challenges. In 2019, Greg received Mental Health America’s top honor, the Clifford Beers Award, for his work in youth mental health.

Greg recently completed a new documentary about suicide, My Ascension, which received a 2020 Media Award from Mental Health America. The film shares the story of Emma Benoit, who survived a suicide attempt at age 16 and went on to become a speaker and activist, as a way to focus on youth suicide prevention.

On Wednesday, February 10, Kristin Wilson, Newport’s Vice President of Clinical Outreach, will host a screening of the film and a panel discussion with Emma, Greg, and suicide prevention activists Tonja Myles and Vanita Halliburton, focusing on the state of teen and young adult mental health and the issues brought to light by this powerful film. Find out more and register.

In advance of the screening, Greg spoke with Newport Academy about his own mental health struggles, the creation of MY LIFE, and the making of My Ascension.

Your personal recovery journey inspired you to create MY LIFE. Could you share a little about that journey?

I had abused substances in high school and college, but it came to a head when I moved to LA after college to pursue my dream of working in the entertainment industry. I was directing a music video when I had my first manic episode. I was hospitalized and diagnosed with co-occurring bipolar disorder and substance use disorder. Over the next 10 years, I was in and out of hospitals, psychiatric units, and drug rehab, and cycled in and out of depressive and manic states. I eventually moved to Louisiana and started a production company with a partner, but I was still using. I would start to get it together, and then it would all go downhill.

During one of my manic episodes, I decided I was going to paint my apartment with acrylic paint, and I finger-painted psychotic words and images all over the walls. My family and friends got me into the hospital. A couple weeks later, I came home and I had lost my job, I was on the edge of being evicted, and I was sitting there looking at the walls covered with these psychotic paintings. I just fell on my knees and asked God for help, and I heard a voice say, “Help yourself.” I had this realization that God or the universe had been helping me all along, but I wasn’t willing to help myself. That’s when I really committed to recovery, and for me it was through the 12-Step program. The 12-Step community is all about service—getting better by helping other people get better—and that was and still is the foundation of my recovery.

That’s how I got into the mental health field, to support others on their own recovery journeys. I was living in Arizona at that point, and I trained to become a peer support specialist. A few months after I completed the training, I ended up being hired to oversee the program, and trained over 100 people as peer support specialists. I also started 12-step recovery groups at the Arizona State Mental Hospital Forensic Unit and at two juvenile detention centers in Arizona.

In 2007, I was working for Magellan Healthcare in Arizona, and came up with the idea to establish a youth leadership group for them, which became MY LIFE. We began implementing MY LIFE programs in other Magellan locations around the country, and today we have 20 programs in six states, and we’ve coordinated 25 MY Fest youth festivals to reduce stigma and raise awareness about mental health and other issues facing youth.

Having worked with so many young people, what do see as the biggest mental health challenge they are facing?

So many young people are dealing with some form of trauma. Many have experienced abuse or sexual assault, particularly the foster kids we work with through MY LIFE. But even for those who have not experienced abuse, there is an external and internal pressure around academic and social success that can be devastating. Social media feeds into that—comparing yourself with others and thinking that everybody else’s life is perfect. Many young people, especially those who have mental health issues, are bullied and ostracized, as Emma was during elementary school, and that’s a form of trauma. Trauma can come in all shapes and sizes, and it has a lasting effect on young people’s lives.

How does MY LIFE support youth who are struggling with trauma and mental health issues?

It provides opportunities to give back, to engage with peers, and to feel like there’s a reason for all the hard stuff they’ve been through, because their story can help others. Our youth also serve as advisors to adults, telling them how they can help improve things for other young people. They’re able to use their stories to help other people, so their negative experiences become something positive and meaningful.

Along with helping them find that sense of purpose, we also help them figure out what they truly enjoy doing, whether it’s drawing or gardening or playing sports, not just what they think they should do. They also get the chance to connect with peers who have had similar experiences, and to hear from speakers who have had their own struggles and are now successful and happy. It gives them hope and inspiration for the future.

How did you get back into filmmaking, and why did you decide to focus on Emma Benoit’s story?

All of my early manic episodes were around doing film projects, and in large part because of that, I had given up on that dream. But a year or two into working with Magellan, I starting making little promotional videos with the youth. Around that time, I connected with Kevin Hines, a suicide prevention activist who had survived his own suicide attempt when he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge at age 19. He asked me to do a documentary film with him, and that became Suicide: The Ripple Effect, which won a number of awards, and had hundreds of theater and community screenings.

Leading up to that film’s premiere, my sister came across Emma’s blog and website, and she thought Emma would be a great person to have on the panel discussion for the premiere. That was about eight months after Emma’s suicide attempt. She agreed to speak at the premiere, and there were maybe 500 people in the audience that day—she was hyperventilating, she was so nervous. But she came out on stage and was just amazing. I had had no intention of doing another documentary about suicide, but hearing Emma’s story and getting to know her and her family, I realized this would be a great opportunity.

In My Ascension, Emma’s story becomes a focal point for a larger exploration of the issue of teen suicide and prevention. What makes her story particularly compelling?

Emma is very charismatic and down to earth, she’s easy to talk to, and she’s able to convey her experiences in a way that a lot of people can relate to. A big thing that drew me to her story was that she doesn’t fit the perception people have in their heads of the kind of kid who deals with mental health challenges or attempts to take their life. Emma was a cheerleader with good grades and a loving family—she had a support system, but she never told anybody that she was struggling because she didn’t want to show that she was weak. Her story helps break down the stereotypes and the stigma associated with mental health issues.

We wanted to show her journey to advocacy as a way to encourage young people—and all people—to take action around suicide prevention, and we wanted to show some concrete ways to do that. The film documents Emma’s work to bring Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer, school-based prevention program, to the high school she attended, to show the benefits of peer-led efforts around suicide prevention and the way that school districts often resist these programs because of the stigma around this topic.

The film also features Gregory Hundall, the founder of Hope Squad; John Draper of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; Dr. Raymond Tucker, a Louisiana State University professor who specializes in suicide prevention work; and national expert Dr. Frank Campbell, a suicidologist for 30-plus years. One of Emma’s mentors, Tonja Myles, a pastor and military veteran who survived her own suicide attempt, is featured. Other young people’s stories are also integrated—teenagers Emma met through her blog and speaking events, as well as friends and families of youth who took their lives.

The film includes footage taken from one teen’s funeral, with her parents’ permission, of course. Why did you choose to document that event?

One of the things I’ve seen in my work and experienced personally is that not enough attention is given to the impact that suicide has on those left behind, the family and friends. I think that’s because, whether consciously or subconsciously, the people around them want to put it behind them. They can’t really comprehend the devastation and lifelong impact suicide has on loved ones.

I was suicidal a number of times throughout my own recovery journey—I’d be on super manic highs and then I’d crash and feel completely hopeless. But I saw my cousin Mac, who was a couple of years younger than me, go through many of the same things I did, and eventually he did take his own life. That was one of the things that kept me from making an attempt. I would remember what it did to his mom and his brother, and I’d think about how my suicide would affect my family.

When people take their lives, most of them aren’t thinking about that—they’re in this mind warp where they think their loved ones would be better off if they were just gone. My theory is that if they had a better understanding of what it would actually be like for their loved ones, it might prevent some of them from attempting suicide.

How are you sharing the film right now?

Our original plan was to do community screenings, which we’ve started doing virtually because of COVID. The goal of the film was to be a tool to draw attention to the topic and hopefully spark conversations and action within local communities. We’re creating a screening package that communities can use—how to do a Q&A after the screening, how to help people find ways to advocate and get involved.

The film is so moving and inspiring. If people come away from it wanting to help and to make a difference, what can they do?

On an individual level, it starts with having conversations. If you’re struggling or someone you know is struggling and showing warning signs of suicide, tell someone, whether it’s talking to a loved one or calling a crisis line. Talk to your loved ones, check in with them, ask them if they’re okay.

On the community level, people can get involved with or donate to local chapters of national mental health and suicide prevention organizations—Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

One of the biggest things is to encourage young people to get involved. Dr. Draper says that in order to make a real impact on youth suicide, we have to get young people involved. Older people aren’t going to be able to do it themselves. We need young people to take action, and schools and communities to give them opportunities to start groups and programs, so they can be that beacon of hope for their peers.

If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For support in finding the right treatment program for depression, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse, contact us anytime, day or night. We’re here to help.