For Karl Benzio, 1987 marked a low point in his life. Low points, though, can also be turning points—and this one was.
At the time, Benzio was studying medicine at Rutgers University. But his struggles with anxiety, anger and alcohol had led him to a dark place. His alcohol abuse and partying had already cost him two scholarships and landed him on academic probation. Now he had hit rock bottom: Behind bars on six counts of aggravated assault after driving drunk.
He probably expected to hear from anyone but God that night. During his stay in jail, though, Benzio felt sure the Lord was communicating a very clear message.
You made me your Savior when you were a little kid, but you never made me Lord, Benzio remembers God telling him. If you make me Lord of your life, I will help you understand decision-making to transform your life as well as many others.
That moment launched Benzio toward a new mission, one now culminating in a pioneering Christian mental health and addiction treatment center. It just might provide the most effective way of combating opioid addiction, or any other kind.
There’s a reason Benzio calls it revolutionary.
This Hard Land
Honey Lake Clinic occupies approximately 2,800 picturesque acres in the Northern Florida community of Greenville. The spring-fed lake that is the property’s namesake seems to provide the perfect setting for weddings or other celebratory occasions. Indeed, that’s what the property was used for when it was known as Honey Lake Plantation Resort and Spa from 2009 to 2015.
Three years ago, the resort’s owner sold it to Celebration Church of Jacksonville, where leaders were excited about using it as a spot for retreats and other outdoor activities. It didn’t take long, however, for them to realize that putting the Honey Lake property to its highest and best use was going to be harder than they thought. The church just wasn’t seeing the impact leaders envisioned.
Enter Bob Hoskins, leader of OneHope, an international ministry aimed at bringing the Gospel to children which held a retreat at Honey Lake after Celebration Church took over. Informally scanning the property, it occurred to Hoskins that it would make the perfect campus to host the rehab work his son David was doing.
Celebration Pastor Stovall Weems then set up a meeting between himself, Benzio and David Hoskins. The latter two were partnering together to run Lighthouse Network, a nonprofit providing a 24-hour hotline and online resources for people struggling with psychological issues and addiction. Their conversation with Weems convinced everyone that the highest use of the Honey Lake property was to transform it into a one-of-a-kind Christian mental health clinic.
Soon after, Honey Lake Clinic was formed as a nondenominational nonprofit organization and bought the property from the church. In May 2017, Benzio and Hoskins’ vision became reality, and Honey Lake Clinic opened its doors.
“Honey Lake Clinic had been a dream of mine ever since I was a teenager,” says Benzio, now an M.D. and psychiatrist for the last three decades, “to put together a program that had scientific and medical depth, as well as biblical depth, to it.”
Many faith-based recovery programs do good, lasting, difference-making work. Among the country’s largest and most well-established are Adult and Teen Challenge USA (better known as just Teen Challenge), a network of Christian rehab centers that in the past has quoted a success rate between 70 and 80-plus percent for those who complete the program, and The Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Centers and Harbor Light programs. Over the past century, these Christian programs and others like them have helped thousands achieve lasting recovery from substance abuse. Studies show their success rates generally outpace those of secular programs. Honey Lake Clinic applauds their work and at times will refer patients to them.
But make no mistake: The Honey Lake model is different by design, starting with the admission process.
“Oftentimes a person needs to be clean from drugs for, say, 10 or 14 days before they can be accepted to Teen Challenge,” Benzio says, accurately referring to the Teen Challenge requirement of detox before admission. “Well, some people can be clean for 14 days before they go there, but some people can’t get off alcohol or drugs for 14 days.” Honey Lake has no such requirement.
The major distinguishing factor for Honey Lake, however, is its approach of holistically integrating science, medicine and biblical faith to help people reclaim their lives. Most Christian recovery programs, Benzio says, are either not medical in nature or will not admit people who are on psychiatric medication. At the other end of the spectrum, medically based programs tend to neglect the spiritual dimension of people’s struggles. “So this lack of integration has led to low levels of success over the past 30 years despite a growing number of treatment programs,” he explains.
Honey Lake claims it is the country’s only residential Christian mental health program with distinctives like an all-Christian staff, Christian psychiatry as part of its basic services, and accreditation from the American Health Care Association and Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
That Benzio would serve as Honey Lake’s medical director and driving force makes perfect sense.
Since the age of 5, Benzio remembers being obsessed with the art of decision-making. Growing up in church, he remembered watching people who knew Jesus make bad decisions, such as falling into adultery. That triggered his fascination with the subject. He became interested in creating a “bionic brain” to explore and uncover its mysteries (what we today call “artificial intelligence”).
That was the background that led Benzio to pursue a degree from Duke University in biomedical engineering with a focus on central nervous system imaging. From there, it was on to Rutgers (when his faith was renewed behind bars) for his medical degree, followed by the completion of his psychiatric residency at the University of California-Irvine. Much of his learning during those years, however, occurred outside the classroom. As he read the Gospels anew, Benzio began studying Jesus as a decision-maker.
“Jesus is called the Great Counselor and the Great Physician. You put those two together and what you have is a psychiatrist,” Benzio says. “So Jesus was the first and obviously perfect psychiatrist, and He started the behavioral health revolution. He came to really attend to the psycho-spiritual struggle and healing that we needed. And that just really excited me. I wanted to develop an organization and a process where we could continue the behavioral health revolution that Jesus started.”
Benzio began unpacking his vision by developing a curriculum on Christian decision-making. In 2003, he went on to found Lighthouse Network. Now, with the launch of Honey Lake Clinic, his goal of revolutionizing Christian behavioral health may be blossoming into full flower.
How It Works
Today, Honey Lake’s staff of 90 is generally caring for 30 patients at any given time. The minimum stay for the treatment program is 30 days, with the average length being 41 days. The price—$30,000 for 30 days of treatment—may sound astronomical, but the clinic’s leaders say it’s more affordable than leading secular recovery programs. They also say insurance will often fund a significant portion of a patient’s medical costs, and scholarships are sometimes awarded to reduce out-of-pocket expenses.
As far as the daily routine is concerned, time is set aside regularly for on-campus devotionals and church services. Patients walk through treatment in small groups of five to six people, with each patient also receiving three individual therapy sessions per week.
“The medical community really looks at addiction as being a primary brain disorder, whereas we look at it and say, ‘No, there’s something that’s going on inside a person psychologically and spiritually,’ ” Benzio says. “So they’re distracting themselves from their inner pain—whether that’s shame, guilt, feeling alone, not feeling valued, not having a purpose, not having meaning. That’s what leads to fertile ground for addictions to grow.”
Getting to the root of those underlying issues and helping patients see and confront them is Honey Lake’s goal. The treatment used to accomplish that can take many forms on campus, from equine therapy to psychodrama to art therapy. Neuro-feedback, brain mapping and a ropes course could all be on the horizon.
“Unless you really get to those underlying psychological issues, you’re not really going to cure or allow someone to develop some significant recovery from their addiction situation,” Benzio insists. “We unpack what the Bible says about our mind and what psychology and science shows us about our mind—to understand how we can use it and be a great steward of it so that we can get peace and joy and psychological fulfillment [away] from the psychological and addictive issues that we struggle with.”
Just the Beginning
Because it’s still relatively new, there are no hard numbers yet on Honey Lake’s success rate. No patients were available to talk with Citizen, though there are a few brief patient testimonials on its website. Leaders, however, say there are definitely success stories—people who have finished the program and stayed clean for more than 10 months. They’re following up regularly with others who have moved beyond the 30-, 60- and 90-day milestones.
“[Hoskins] and I have a dream and feel called to equip the global Church to be the place struggling people go for answers to their struggles,” Benzio says. “We want to develop the model at Honey Lake Clinic and then strategically partner with like-minded ministries around the country and the world to provide needs-based evangelism.”
Benzio believes behavioral health needs—like opioid addiction here in the U.S.—open a large window of spiritual opportunity, and he wants the Church to rise to the occasion. He would like nothing more than to see Honey Lake’s blueprint replicated by other ministries and churches nationwide, and even beyond. Groups from Colombia, France, India and South Africa have already approached Honey Lake about bringing its model to their countries.
“I think this is sort of like an Esther moment. For a time such as this, the Church has an opportunity to step into this world. There’s hopelessness. There’s despair. There’s depression,” Benzio says. “Addictions are the number one cause of death in our country.
“So it’s a huge epidemic, these behavioral health issues, but the Bible has the answer.”
For More Information:
To learn more about Honey Lake Clinic, visit honeylake.clinic. Find out more about Adult and Teen Challenge USA at https://bit.ly/2l9eL4o. More information about The Salvation Army’s treatment programs is available at http://bit.ly/2KFbswe.
Originally published in the August 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.