SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Ben Longley was brilliant and athletic, born to privilege, but not immune to mental illness and addiction.
May was mental health awareness month, but Ben’s parents are sharing his story to keep the conversation going, in hopes of letting other families know they are not alone. The Longley’s frantically tried to help their college-aged son, having no idea of the difficult road ahead of them.
The Longleys moved to the United States from South Africa when their youngest child, Ben, was five. He grew into a very social kid.
“They would often come out to our lake cabin on the Fourth of July–big groups of kids. They would come and pitch tents, go on the pontoons and have a blast,” Leigh Longley said.
He and his dad shared a love of hunting, golf and debate.
Paul Longley: We had good discussions about multiple topics.
Angela Kennecke: And he was so smart.
Paul Longley: Yeah, very smart.
Kennecke: You must have been so proud of him.
Paul Longley: Great kid.. (chokes up) Yep.
“Ben was forever negotiating and he said to his dad, ‘If I score over a 30 on my ACT, would you buy me a Ford F150? Well he scored over a 30 on his ACT and he did get his Ford F150,” Leigh Longley said.
His parents had no way of knowing that the truck would bring much more sorrow than joy in the end.
They sent their bright son off to the University of Nebraska, where he received a four-year scholarship for academics.
Then in the spring of his junior year, he showed up on their doorstep unannounced.
“Arriving at 5:30 in the morning and he was questioning everything and just absolutely terrified,” Leigh Longley said.
“It was shock. He had lost about 40 pounds in weight. It was clear that things were not going right with him. It’s terrifying for a family to see that happening to somebody,” Paul Longley said.
He told his parents he’d been prescribed Adderall to help him concentrate and he’d been smoking marijuana at night to try to sleep. They immediately sought out a counselor who told him:
Leigh Longley: Go home. There’s nothing wrong with you. Go home.
Kennecke: But you knew otherwise.
Leigh Longley: (Nods) And Ben knew otherwise.
Then on a family trip, Ben had a break from reality.
“He had spoken to a father of a young girl he knew and he needed to come back to Sioux Falls to marry her. And he needed a car and he wanted to leave right then. And in his mind, that conversation was as real as the conversation you and I are having right now. We tried to get him into a psychiatrist. That in itself was so difficult because nobody wanted to take new patients. They were full,” Leigh said.
“We tried every resource we could possibly find. Unfortunately, the mental health industry as a whole, and Sioux Falls is included in that–is very fragmented. It’s overworked. It’s understaffed. It is a big problem,” Paul said.
Eventually, Ben was admitted to Avera Behavioral Health where he was put on anti-psychotic medication. A month later, he got an appointment with a psychiatrist.
“Paul and I were both in the doctor’s room with him and the doctor told Ben, ‘Let me tell you about the life of a schizophrenic. You will be homeless. You will live under a bridge. You will never form a relationship because people with schizophrenia do not know how to have a relationship. Your friends will all leave you because they won’t understand what to do with you. And you’ll be called a f**t,'” Leigh said.
Leigh says at that moment she lost her son.
“You can lose your child more than once and you just saw the hope even diminish more. He wasn’t who he was. Ben knew that Ben had gone–the Ben who was our son. The bright, intelligent, social boy had gone,” she said.
Ben had three diagnoses: schizophrenia, anxiety and depression. He was also self-medicating.
“So he knew that his thoughts were just racing away in every direction. And he also admitted to us he was still not sleeping on all the medication he was on and had turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism,” Leigh said.
“We actually thought for some time that he had stopped drinking completely. He appeared to not be drinking. We didn’t know he was doing it on the quiet, behind our backs,” Paul said.
Then on May 19th, 2020, Ben told his parents he wanted to go for a drive in his F150.
“We thought it was a great thing. We thought he wanted to get in his car and go for a drive because he was feeling okay. We were proud of him. And that is the day Ben was involved in that terrible accident, ten minutes after leaving home,” Leigh said.
Ben’s pickup collided with 60-year-old Dale Rollag’s car in southern Sioux Falls on Cliff Avenue.
“And a vehicle pulled out in front of Ben and Ben hit the back of the vehicle. Ben’s car rolled three times. But the other gentleman was not wearing a safety belt and was ejected from his vehicle,” Leigh said.
Rollag died of his injuries.
“The day after he was phoning the detective to ask how the man was. And when he found out he had died, another part of Ben died. Just the guilt of even being a part of something so horrific, it was hard for him,” Leigh said.
Ben’s blood-alcohol level was over the legal limit. Following the crash, Ben sought treatment at the Avera Addiction Care Center, but once he was released, reality set in as he faced first-degree manslaughter charges.
Paul: He certainly felt horrible about disappointing us, his parents. And his friends and that made him become even more recluse.
Kennecke: And you didn’t have any indication that he was going to complete suicide?
Paul: None at all, unfortunately. I spoke to him midday and got home at 4 o’clock and found that he was deceased in the house.
Kennecke: You found him.
Leigh: He hung himself.
Paul: We could look at it in a lot of ways, purely from our own grief, or his release. I think to get to that point must have been very hard. But he obviously chose that and it must have been hell to get there.
The Longleys say that being open about Ben’s struggle has led to other families sharing their own. They believe more conversations like this one can save lives.
And if they had one last chance to say something to Ben, it would just be this.
“How proud we are to have been his parents. To thank him for all the years of being our son. And for just how much we will love him and carry his name forward in the hope that other families can be spared this tragedy,” Leigh said.
The Longleys now host a golf tournament in Ben’s name to benefit Lost and Found, a suicide prevention non-profit that focuses on college-aged students.
The Second Annual Longball22 Classic Golf Tournament will be held on July 22nd at Grand Falls Casino and Golf Resort. Details here.