Mental health treatment eluded 'champion' runner who died at Ribfest

Benjamin Lee Silver was a champion, family members say.

He had an amazing drive that led him to success in cross-country, high achievement in school, and creativity with words as a poet and songwriter.

It's those traits his parents and older brother will be remembering when they celebrate Ben's life with ceremonies at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Sunday at American Legion Post 80, 4000 Saratoga Ave., Downers Grove.

Ben, 22, of Downers Grove, died by suicide July 2 at Ribfest in Naperville. But his family says his death is not what defined him and certainly not how they will remember him.

"The thing I will remember most about Ben and that will always stay with me is his absolutely perfect comic timing," his mother, Jamie Silver, said Friday. "He was adorable and he was funny and he was warm and he had a great smile and he was incredibly creative."

Jamie has been reminiscing about a song Ben wrote and performed in a talent contest in Downers Grove, where his family has lived since Ben was in kindergarten. "The Girl With Zero Flaws" tells the true story of a girl Ben once met at the teen night club Zero Gravity in an unincorporated area near Naperville, and his mother says it illustrates his supreme wit.

"You seemed so different from the other girls, and you said that I was the same. You seemed so cute and innocent, but girls like that don't hang out at this place," Ben sings in a video his mother recorded of the performance. "So yes I met her at Zero Gravity, but I swear that she was clean."

Growing up, Ben enjoyed acting and exercising. That's what led him to join the cross-country and track teams at Downers Grove North High School, where he graduated in 2011.

His father, Paul Silver, said Ben best displayed his drive and tenacity during his senior year of high school, when an ankle injury in September kept him off the cross-country course and threatened his season.

Paul says Ben twice had earned all-state honors in cross-country but was never quite satisfied. So injured ankle and all, Ben would spend two hours each day on an elliptical trainer, "going full-out" to keep up his heart rate and fitness level.

By the time the injury healed and the state competition came around, Ben was ready. He placed as high as he ever did, finishing 10th, his parents said.

"He was known as a runner who helped push every single other runner to be the absolute best that he could possibly be," Ben's mother said.

Ben's commitment to running earned him a full-ride scholarship to Miami University in Ohio, where he was to be a member of the cross-country team. His brother, Aaron Silver, a medical student at Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University in Maywood, said Ben succeeded academically his freshman year of college despite being unable to compete with the running team because of an injury.

During Ben's sophomore year, however, he began to have trouble focusing and was diagnosed with ADHD. He struggled in his classes and came up one credit shy of being able to maintain his scholarship.

Ben's father said his son did everything he could to keep the scholarship, despite his parents' willingness to help him pay for school. The scholarship was something he'd earned through running, something he valued, and something he didn't want to let go.

Ben got doctor's notes and petitioned the school to reinstate his scholarship, but this time, his best efforts came up short. The scholarship was taken away.

"When he lost that, it was almost like he had nothing left," his mother said.

He was hospitalized in August 2013 and diagnosed with schizophrenia, the mental illness that his family says eventually led him to take his life.

"He hadn't spoken to a lot of people he once cared for. He fell out of the life that he was living," Ben's brother said. "He really didn't find a lot of things that he enjoyed and he couldn't see hope even in the broader context of life."

In his memory, Ben's family is planning to begin a running event next summer called Ben's Memorial Mile, with the intent of hosting it each year. His parents also want to push for better treatment options other than inpatient hospitalization for people with mental illnesses.

Ben was being treated at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville at the time of his death, his family says. His parents said they were unable to find another treatment facility to accept him, so he began to feel trapped and even more isolated.

"He was a running star, musician, poet. He did lead a life of intensity and achievement," his father said. "But in the process of his illness, he became basically pretty much cut off from everyone."

At Ben's celebration of life, there will be a Buddhist chanting ceremony at 10 a.m. Ben's mother said she has practiced Buddhist chanting for 30 years and it was something Ben did his entire life - a life his family always will remember as full of running, joking, performing and laughing.

"Ben was a champion," his mother said. "He was a true champion."

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