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"I knew I wasn't alone ... that's what kept me going"

"I knew I wasn't alone ... that's what kept me going"

Gabrielle Benefield went through high school in Alachua County depressed. She had lost all hope – even lost her will to live – and considered suicide. But after a doctor put her on the right medications, her outlook on life improved.

Dr. Chris Kirby is a physician and a recovering addict. He once saw a grim future for himself. He now works for an organization that helps addicts regain their lives.

They were among six speakers at a suicide prevention forum held last month at Celebration United Methodist Church in Gainesville. The event was attended by more than 30 people with others watching via Facebook, shortly before Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency and ended social gathering in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

These stories of redemption and recovery highlight the need for more and better care for people suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts. Suicide has been a heartbreaking problem in the United States.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 48,000 recorded suicides in the U.S. in 2018, up from more than 42,000 in 2014. The CDC's National Center for Health Statistics also reports that – on average and adjusted for age – the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, the highest rate recorded in 28 years

There are fears that rate could increase given the disruption of lifestyles because of COVID-19.

Alcohol and drug abuse are among the leading risk factors for suicide. Fifty-six percent of all suicides are alcohol- or substance abuse-related. Meanwhile, studies show that 90 percent of people who commit suicide had undiagnosed mental health disorders.

Studies show treatment for addiction has helped people find purpose and happiness in their lives. Kirby is one example. An internal medicine physician, his experience is not just from treating and observing patients. He was one. He lost his family, his medical license, his job, and his high income to his addiction.

“It was gone,” he said of the life he knew but squandered.

While some addicts treat their physical and emotional pain with illicit drugs, Kirby treated his with alcohol.

“The good news about alcohol and drugs is they work,” he said. “The bad news is they work. (I tell people that) those things that you are taking to make you feel better momentarily are actually causing you to be depressed.”

After moving to Florida from New Hampshire, Kirby was a patient for many weeks at a detox unit in the Gainesville area. While there, he had no hope. He saw no future for himself.

Kirby struggled to come to terms with his addiction. He said he “wanted it to be over.” He didn’t necessarily want to “do something about it.” But he “didn’t want it to go on.”

He said he was able to recover after he surrendered to a higher power and found the love of God.

“I found hope,” he said. “I found reasons to live that were outside of me. It was to help others. It gave me purpose.”

He tells people that suicide is “a permanent solution to a temporary problem. The range between feeling good and feeling dead is very small.”

Kirby said he has fully recovered. He is focusing on the future, but his experiences with addiction influenced his post-addiction career path. He regained his medical license and was approved for a fellowship in addictions medicine at the same detox unit where he had been a patient.

He now treats patients with substance abuse disorder, serving as attending physician at White Sands Treatment Center in Land O Lakes, near Tampa.

“It’s not about anything I did,” Kirby said of his ongoing recovery. “It is about finding a source of hope. I found that Holy Spirit-filling moment. I knew that I knew that I knew that I wasn’t alone, that I was loved unconditionally. That’s what kept me going.”

“I really must be just as worthless as I feel.”

During her early teenage years, Benefield would wake up feeling like she had a weight on her chest. She reasoned that hormones or puberty was the cause and that everyone felt like she did.

Normally an upbeat person, by age 16, Benefield became severely depressed. She didn’t understand why she felt that way.

Having grown up in a Christian household, she assumed that she was “not good enough” because she could not “pray away” her problems.

“I really must be just as worthless as I feel,” she said.

Over time she realized that not everyone felt the way she did and “maybe what I am feeling is a problem, something I can’t control.”

Today Benefield, 20, talks about ending the silence, erasing stigmas so children will talk about their depression and suicidal thoughts. She tells her story at middle schools and high schools through her association with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. But she can adapt her message for adults.

“I’m a couple of weeks away from turning 21,” she said, “and there was a time when I didn’t think I would turn 18.”

A worldwide struggle

Another speaker at the forum was Dr. Andres Pumariega, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at UF Health in Gainesville.

Pumariega said suicide is "something that ... we're struggling with worldwide. It's getting greater and greater recognition. People who struggle with their thoughts of not wanting to live, their serious depression, their anguish, it causes immense human suffering."

Pumariega connects the problems suffered by people like Benefield to the shortage of adolescent child psychiatrists in the U.S. There are only 9,000 such specialists at a time when the need is 40,000.

He reasoned that many depression cases do not rise to the level of treatment by a psychiatrist. His innovative solution is to have child and adolescent psychiatrists serve as consultants to pediatricians and help them manage less-complex cases.

The psychiatrists would take the more difficult cases, the ones where multiple medications are involved, or numerous medication adjustments are required. In this scenario, psychiatrists are not providing one-on-one care to patients who do not necessarily need their care.

“I thought what a brilliant plan that is,” said Virginia Hagen, a registered nurse, licensed mental health counselor, and member of Celebration UMC who helped plan the forum.

Pumariega implemented this program in New Jersey, and it worked well and was well-received, Hagen said. “Now he's implementing it with pediatricians in Gainesville. It extends the arms of psychiatrists with heavy caseloads.

“We have a shortage of psychiatrists in general, but particularly for that age group,” she said. “That's going to be a really good model for people to adopt.”

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer from Venice.