Carol and Kyle McMann with a picture of their son, Ben, and his football helmet. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
A cooler with a note attached sits on the porch of the McMann house in south Salem. Well wishers are invited to leave food inside if the family isn’t home.
For Carol and Kyle McMann, the message signals how much their life has shifted since their son Ben, a freshman football player at Sprague High School, killed himself in September.
Carol McMann is a former Marion County sheriff’s deputy who now works for Salem’s Public Works Department. Her husband has been a firefighter with Marion County Fire District No. 1 for 18 years and now serves as deputy chief.
They’ve spent their careers giving people CPR, consoling victims at crime scenes and putting out fires, literal and figurative. They are used to seeing other people on their worst days.
Ben’s death forced them to do something they’re much less comfortable with: ask for help.
“It was probably the most humbling experience because my husband and me are always on the other side,” McMann said. Between the football team, local fire departments and the Sprague community, they’ve been flooded with home-cooked meals, condolences, prayers and well wishes.
“People just bring stuff over. It’s incredible,” she said.
On a Sunday in September, the McManns drove their daughter, Lauren, to Lincoln City to take her senior pictures. Ben opted to stay home, which wasn’t unusual for him, but asked the family to bring some Nepali food back from his favorite restaurant.
When his mother returned home that evening, she found him dead in his bedroom.
Her first thought was that it looked like a crime scene, something she’d see at work, not in her own home. Her training as a police officer competed with her instincts as a mother.
“I don’t want to move anything, but I want to grab him and hold him,” she said.
Carol McMann opens a scrapbook the family has made of notes and memories from Ben's friends. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
The family is still grieving, but they’re also looking for ways to turn their son’s death into something that might help others.
“I don’t want anybody else to go through this kind of pain,” she said.
Ben was the first of two Sprague students to take their own lives this school year. The death of junior Aaron Brown led to a school district-wide discussion about preventing teen suicide and spurred community forums and trainings for counselors and other district staff.
Signs that read “you matter” and “don’t give up” now line the road into Sprague where bus drivers drop off students. The district has held community conversations about youth suicide at Sprague and McNary high schools, bringing counselors and mental health professionals together to answer parent questions and facilitate a discussion about how the Salem-Keizer community can better prevent youth suicides.
Similar events are planned for the district’s remaining high schools.
At Sprague, two grief and loss groups are running, said Erin Nichols, who leads the district’s crisis team. One is for people who knew Ben and Aaron well, and the other is for students struggling with more general grief and loss who want a place to talk.
The McManns have struggled to make sense of their son’s death. Ben was anxious about the transition to high school, perhaps more than they understood at the time, his mother said.
A brief note specified some of his belongings should be given to a friend, but left no other information for parents searching for some reason for his death.
He was a sensitive teen who looked out for his friends and sometimes struggled with his own emotions, his mother said. But he was doing well in school, enjoying his football team at Sprague.
Whatever was going on inside, “he hid it well,” McMann said.
She’s been in touch with the parents of Tyler Hilinski, a star quarterback at Washington State University who took his own life early this year.
An autopsy revealed Hilinski had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease linked to repetitive head trauma that’s been found in many NFL athletes, and increasingly in some high school and college players. Behavioral changes, including depression and aggressive behavior, are among the disease’s symptoms.
Ben played tackle football for eight years, she said, as an offensive tackle and defensive end. He was cremated, so his brain wasn’t available for analysis.
McMann said she’s considered whether brain damage might have played some role in his death, but doesn’t believe it did. He was usually the largest player on his team, she said, and was rarely injured.
“He was usually the one putting the hurt on kids,” she said.
The McManns have planned a few tangible ways to commemorate their son. He loved wolves and delighted in a family trip to the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary near Banff, Alberta, so his parents plan to make a donation in his memory.
They’re also setting up a scholarship for a young football player to attend Linepro, a football training for lineman taught by Alex Linnekohl, a mentor of Ben’s.
Another scholarship in his name will benefit a Sprague senior - someone planning to study either mental health or history, one of Ben’s passions.
He studied World War II and the War of 1812 intensely, often impressing his history teachers.
“The teachers were like, ‘He could have taught that,’” McMann said.
Friends and family remember Ben with a scrapbook of notes and photos. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
For gifts, he wanted books about German general Erwin Rommel’s campaign in North Africa. He studied leadership and military strategy and loved playing Risk. He wanted to be a high school history teacher, complaining even as a middle school student that middle schoolers were too immature.
Kyle McMann said Ben’s death has given him a renewed sense of purpose at work, where mental health calls requiring a medical response are common.
He only recently went back to work and hasn’t yet been called to treat someone in crisis or considering suicide. But when he does, he said he’d like to talk to them about his own son to build trust and convince them to seek help.
“Now it’s personal to me,” he said.
Seeing the Sprague community go through another suicide just two weeks after Ben’s was devastating, the family said. But Kyle McMann said he hopes the support for his family and the Browns and the resulting conversations about mental health might be helping other students.
“Even though we lost Aaron in the Sprague community, did we already stop someone else?” he said.
He plans to get involved in suicide prevention groups like American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which held its annual Out of the Darkness walk earlier this year in Salem.
They hope by being open and honest about Ben, they can encourage more parents to check in with their teenagers, even those who don’t seem to be struggling, and ensure resources are available for people who do want to seek help.
“No secrets. It’s about helping the next kid,” he said.
YouthLine gives Oregon teens an option to talk to other trained teenagers, via call or text, from 4-10 p.m. weekdays, with calls answered by adults during other hours. YouthLine is available at (877) 968-8491, or by text at 839863.
Warning signs for suicide include withdrawal, isolation and talking about being in unbearable pain or being a burden to others. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a list of risk factors, warning signs and suggestions for helping someone who may be thinking about suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), and connects callers with a crisis center near them. For help in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.