On Friday, July 23, a golf tournament will honor the life of Ben Longley and raise awareness and support for Lost&Found’s suicide prevention programs for young adults.
The first annual Ben’s Long Ball 22 Classic Golf Tournament, sponsored by Avera Health and First PREMIER Bank/PREMIER Bankcard will take place at Grand Falls Casino & Resort in Larchwood, Iowa. Golfing starts at 1 p.m.
Ben loved to play golf with his friends, according to his mother, Leigh Longley, and his friends came up with the name for the tournament. “He could hit the ball a long, long way,” she said. “And he was 22 when he passed.”
The event will raise funds for Lost&Found’s newly-launched Peer2Peer Mentorship Program, which was created in partnership with South Dakota State University this past spring and will expand to serve six additional institutions of higher education in South Dakota and Minnesota this fall.
“We are thankful for the trust and generosity the Longley family has chosen to place in our rapidly-growing peer mental health support programs in South Dakota and surrounding region,” says Lost&Found CEO Erik Muckey. “It is an honor to celebrate Ben’s life alongside his family and friends and take collective action to make new resources accessible to thousands of students in our state.”
Spots in the golf tournament have all been taken, but all are welcome to participate in the silent auction. To donate or participate in the silent auction, go to resilienttoday.givesmart.com.
Title sponsors Avera Health and First PREMIER Bank/PREMIER Bankcard are joined by over 25 individuals, families, and Sioux Falls area businesses that are supporting the Longleys and their partnership with Sioux Falls-based 501c3 Lost&Found. With a full field of 144 players, this tournament is expected to become an annual event supporting regional young adult suicide prevention programs for years to come.
“Avera is proud to support Lost&Found as we both work to impact the mental wellness of the individuals we serve. This great event will help to support needed services for many,” said Thomas Otten, Assistant Vice President of Avera Behavioral Health Services.
Benjamin Longley was born March 18, 1998, in Harare, Zimbabwe. He was the youngest child of Paul and Leigh Longley, with two older sisters, Emma and Kirsty. The family immigrated to the United States in 2004, when Emma was 11, Kirsty was 8, and Ben was 5.
“Africa was falling apart,” Paul said. “We had the chance to immigrate here, and I’ve got a family here. So we came across.”
The family settled in Sioux Falls, where Ben attended St. Michael’s Elementary School, and later, O’Gorman High School.
Ben was a very inquisitive child, starting at a very young age. “He was not satisfied with an answer of, ‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you later.’ Or, you know, ‘Give me five minutes.’ he wanted an answer,” Leigh said. “He asked some very deep questions for a little guy.”
“He was as smart as a whip,” Paul said. “He loved to debate, but often would go and do his research first before he got into the debate with you so he had an idea what he was talking about.”
This would often drive his sisters crazy, Leigh said. “No matter how much they tried to prove him wrong, he generally had his facts and figures in his brain and could take them and show (his sisters) they were wrong.”
Ben did well in school and made friends easily. Every Fourth of July, the family would host about 20 teenagers at their lake cabin, where they would set up tents in the back acreage and spend the day on the jet ski or the pontoon. Ben would get up early to fishing with his friends. “It was just wonderful, enjoyable times with them all,” Leigh said.
After Ben’s death, Paul and Leigh heard from many people who had appreciated his presence in their lives, including the parents of Ben’s friends.
“Ben was the kind of kid that when he walked into the house, he didn’t just go to the basement to see his friends—he stopped and he spent time talking to the parents. And they enjoyed those conversations with him,” Paul said. “He pretty much managed to get on with anybody … even if people were disagreeing, he looked for the better in people.”
He gave his parents nicknames: Magic Gnome and Grumpy Old Man.
The Magic Gnome moniker came from the fact that no matter how much dirty laundry he made or how untidy his room was, “it would miraculously be fixed by his Magic Gnome,” Leigh said.
And Grumpy Old Man?
“I’m not sure where that came from,” Paul said.
Ben changed the nickname for Paul to Grumpy Old Man on Leigh’s phone. “So if Paul would ask Siri a question, she would answer to Grumpy Old Man,” Leigh said. “So he did have a sense of humor.”
On April 5, 2019, Paul and Leigh became aware of Ben’s mental illness.
He was in his junior year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he had a four-year scholarship. At 2:30 in the morning, he started driving. He arrived at his parents’ door at 5 a.m. and said, “I’m not alright.”
He was asking deep philosophical questions about religion, knowledge, and money. “He truly was wondering if his whole life he had been working so hard to achieve a career and make money,” Leigh said. “And I think the answers were troubling him.”
Paul and Leigh tried to connect him with people who could help him, which included clergy and community leaders who could offer different cultural perspective.
“We thought that maybe if he could have those questions answered he would find some peace within himself,” Leigh said. “But unfortunately, the illness was there, whatever it was.”
Over the course of 18 months, Ben received at least three different diagnoses, and Paul and Leigh still aren’t sure which, if any, of those diagnoses was right. Ben had racing thoughts, his thought process moving too quickly for him to be able to focus for any length of time. He had difficulty sleeping. He sometimes felt anxious, and at other times depressed or lethargic. He struggled with using alcohol as a coping mechanism, for sleep and the racing thoughts.
“It was incredibly painful to watch a young man fighting for answers,” Leigh said. “It’s not as if he didn’t ask for help. He was begging for help.”
One of the things Paul and Leigh wonder about today is the use of medications. Ben was prescribed several different medications over that time, starting with medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in his sophomore year at college. These prescriptions may have had unintended effects.
“I think that the self-medication with alcohol started then because he would get back from his night classes, be completely wired (from the ADHD medication), and not be able to sleep,” Leigh said.
“When somebody gets cancer … it’s a tangible thing that can be looked at, and a true diagnosis and treatment plan comes together,” Leigh said. “With mental illness, you don’t have that. It’s a little bit of a of a guessing game of what is going to work, how it’s going to work. And if it doesn’t work—‘Oh, well, let’s just put you on something else.’ And I think that this is where something needs to change, in folk being given the opportunity to have long-term care with a team surrounding them and taking them back to ground zero of every medication, away from any self-medication that they could possibly be using, and starting from there.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made treatment difficult. During the pandemic, Ben would have his sessions with his counselor, nurse practitioner, or psychiatrist by phone, with as much as six weeks between sessions. Treatment conversations over distance, with such long gaps between them and without the input of family members who saw the patient every day, can give a skewed view of what is actually happening with the patient.
“At the time, the moment that he speaks to that particular person, his symptoms are this. But in an hour and a day, that could be totally different,” Paul said.
It was also tempting to pretend that things were better than they actually were.
“It’s easier to say, ‘I’m OK’ or ‘I’m fine,’” Leigh said. “Those are the two most common phrases I think we heard for 18 months.”
Ben’s mental health struggles were a roller coaster of highs and lows. Ben seemed to be doing OK one morning in May of 2020 when he left the house in his Ford F-150. “He got involved in a terrible motor vehicle accident, and the other person (in the other car) was killed,” Paul said. A traumatizing event on its own became something much worse because of multiple factors in play. As a result of those factors, Ben faced significant legal trouble.
“In those cases, the lawyers say that you must not talk to anyone about it. That included us as parents. Otherwise, we could be called in as witnesses,” Paul said. “It really took a big, big, toll on Ben to be involved when somebody else died. I think just that alone was difficult for him to live with.”
With his mental health struggles, and then with a potential for a felony conviction, Ben could see that his life would be hard in the future, and much different from what he had planned. He loved to shoot, and a felony conviction comes with firearms restrictions. A career in the financial sector would be unlikely.
Some of the messages he received during treatment were clearly unhelpful.
“When a psychiatrist tells you that you are going to live under a bridge, you will maybe mow lawns for a living, you’ll have no friends, you’ll never have a relationship—I could go on and on with what was said, and I know what was said because Paul and I were in the doctor’s appointments, as Ben signed releases of information for us everywhere because he was so afraid of what was happening—I think he lost hope,” Leigh said. “People need to be given hope. … if you take hope away from somebody, what have they got?”
Ben took his own life July 21, 2020.
“I truly believe in his mind, he thought he was saving us from a world of hurt,” Leigh said. “I wish people understood that suicide is not a selfish choice. … The cruel things that people say like, ‘Well, your child had a choice’ … things like that are not helpful. Don’t judge, because you don’t know anybody’s story.
“Mental health, like any other disease, is a disease. People that get cancer, the death certificate doesn’t say ‘died of cancer.’ It’ll say, ‘died of pneumonia’ or ‘pulmonary embolism’ or something else. Whereas for our young folk, the cause of death is suicide. But there’s so much more to it than that. This person was a whole person. This was just a final tragic end to a disease.”
Imagining a better path forward
Paul and Leigh’s experiences have given them a perspective of what is working in the mental health ecosystem and what really needs to be improved.
One resource that was helpful to the Longleys was a program called OnTrack that worked to help young adults who have had a psychotic break prevent a reoccurrence. Another helpful program was Avera Health’s rehabilitation program for alcoholism and drug addiction. After Ben’s suicide, they also received caring support from friends and members of the clergy.
They wished that Lost&Found had a presence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, especially a peer mentorship program like the one that Lost&Found has started at South Dakota State University.
“With a mentorship program, there certainly could be a lot of early intervention,” Paul said.
Ben’s friends didn’t know what they were seeing. Even if they suspected something was amiss, they were hesitant to invade his privacy.
“They don’t realize that the best thing is to reach out to them,” Paul said. “Say, ‘Are you alright? Is there something we can do?’”
This kind of basic mental health training for recognizing issues and referring people to resources, as well as basics of self-care, could be included in the curriculum at universities. Paul and Leigh believe it should be a priority.
“What do you need to do some of the electives—like the history of rock and roll—for, when you’re not taught about self-care, self-help?” Leigh said.
Some parts of the system are moving in the right direction. In recent years, and especially with recognition of mental health challenges that came with the pandemic, “mental health is coming to the forefront,” Paul said. “People are less restrictive about talking about it.”
Other changes have come with increasing awareness. Insurance companies are now more likely to pay for treatment, for example, and the money involved provides another incentive to look for better solutions. “I think once insurance companies realize that early intervention is way cheaper than long-term management, you will see some of those changes,” Paul said.
Paul, Leigh, and their daughters Emma and Kirsty want this golf tournament to continue the conversation pushing for better mental health outcomes for young adults.
“We are just trying to bring our unfortunate circumstances out into the light, because since we have been open to talk about Ben’s mental health and Ben’s death, the number of people that have come to us is absolutely amazing. And that is why I think you’re seeing such support for the golf tournament—because it is affecting everybody,” Paul said.
“It’s a day that we want to bring hope that with programs like Lost&Found and collaboration, community can come together,” Leigh said. “This is not a one-person problem. … no one institution is going to fix this. This is going to take all of us—parents, psychiatrists, whoever you are, to come together and do what we can to help where we can.”
If you or someone you know are struggling with a mental health crisis, please dial 211 in South Dakota to connect with the Helpline Center. More resources available to college-aged students can be found here.
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Lost&Found facilitates comprehensive, data-driven, resilience-focused, public mental health programs for suicide prevention, serving young adults 15-34. Founded in 2010, Lost&Found takes a data-driven, strengths-based approach to suicide prevention efforts, delivering research tools that allow campus administrators to quickly understand and respond to student mental health needs through programs, policies, and people.