Overland Park family speaks out through the pain of teen suicide
By LISA GUTIERREZ
The Kansas City Star
Kevin Lang would have been a senior at Blue Valley Northwest this year. Before Friday’s home game, his mother, Debbie Lang, was presented with his jersey. She hugged Blue Valley Northwest football defensive coordinator John Reichart.
Kevin Lang lived what his father calls a “typical, normal” life in a comfortable house on a neighborly cul-de-sac in Overland Park.
The most recent, and last, family portrait hangs over the fireplace in the living room. It shows a happy, good-looking foursome. Mom. Dad. Two young sons.
Kevin, the youngest, would have been a senior this year at Blue Valley Northwest if he hadn’t taken his life in May.
“You never think it will happen to you,” says Kevin’s dad, Tim, using the words people reach for after tragedy.
Kevin’s friends, wearing white rubber memorial bands around their wrists, know what Kevin did. The hundreds of people who attended his funeral know. Now the rest of us do, too.
It would be easy to never speak publicly about the pain. Kevin’s mom cries in private, and she visits his grave almost every day.
Tim and Debbie Lang know that many parents who have been through this never talk about it. But silence helps no one. So they’ve decided to talk, about Kevin’s life and his death. They’re doing it to help publicize that Northwest’s Parent Booster Club is bringing former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple to town Tuesday to talk about teens and depression.
Hipple has been where the Langs are now. His 15-year-old son killed himself in April 2000. In Hipple’s case, there was no hiding. The headlines said it: “NFL quarterback Eric Hipple’s son dies by suicide.”
Hipple played Monday morning quarterback, as the Langs have.
What did we do? What didn’t we do? How did we miss this? Are we bad parents? Why did this happen?
“I don’t think you ever totally understand why someone chooses to do this,” says Debbie, an occupational therapist for MidAmerica Rehabilitation Hospital. “I don’t think it was just about one thing. I think there were several contributing factors.
“When I look at him as a person and his personality and what made him make that decision that night, I don’t think we’ll completely understand it. This was Kevin’s decision. This is not something we think was a good decision.”
Kevin would have played football for the Huskies again this year. He was No. 4. The team has decided that no one will wear that jersey this season. But at last Friday’s game they all wore Kevin’s number, 4, on their helmets.
Kevin had just sent his highlight video to colleges where he hoped to play next year. When coaches began calling, his parents had to tell them that Kevin was dead.
Kevin loved the game. He had a “football mentality,” Tim says of his 6-foot-1 son. He was 180 pounds, naturally athletic, and also played basketball and ran track. “He was pretty fast. He liked to hit and to be hit.”
Kevin’s principal, Amy Murphy, says that Kevin’s death rocked the school in May, just days before graduation.
In a sea of some 1,700 students, “he was just one of those faces that you knew in the building,” says Murphy. “Everybody knew Kevin.
“It was a pretty somber end of the school year. For a lot of the kids, it was pretty hard to get through.”
The image Murphy can’t forget is that of Kevin’s girlfriend walking through the halls of the school, cradling his yearbook in her arms, asking classmates to sign it.
Kevin’s parents say he was the risk-taker of their two sons. He liked four-wheeling and playing on his Xbox but never really liked school. The older he got, the tougher school got.
Kevin used to say that his older brother, Matt, was the smart one. School came more easily for Matt, who is studying architecture at Kansas State University. Kevin also used to say that his brother would design a home for him someday.
At Northwest, Kevin participated in a school-within-a-school program that offered smaller classes, fewer teachers and more individual attention.
“He really was much more comfortable in small groups rather than large groups,” says Debbie. “He had social anxiety, and I don’t know that his friends realized that. I think he lacked a lot of self-confidence, and that would come as a surprise to most people because they saw him on the football field and in athletics where he felt very confident. But in most other areas of his life? He did not.
“I don’t think he had self-confidence in school. I think we could tell him all the time that we loved him and were proud of him …”
She can’t finish the thought through her tears.
Two years ago Kevin began taking medication for depression and last year began seeing school psychologist Julie Seitter on a regular basis.
His parents don’t mind revealing it.
“It’s what many people don’t want to talk about, the depression,” says Tim.
They don’t hesitate, either, when asked how Kevin died.
“I think everybody knows that,” Tim says quietly. “How he did it.”
“He hung himself,” says Debbie.
‘It was just us’
That night, May 6, Debbie asked Seitter not to say anything to the students until she had a chance to reach his brother in Manhattan. She didn’t want him to find out the news of the suicide attempt on Facebook, of all places.
And before they heard it somewhere else, Tim also called together his employees at his GM dealership in Paola, Kan., and told them: “My son tried to commit suicide. He did a pretty good job of it because he’s on life support now.”
The Langs spent 10 days with Kevin at Overland Park Regional Medical Center. No visitors.
“He was on life support, and we just didn’t think Kevin would want other people to see him that way,” says Debbie. “So it was just us.”
After a series of CT scans showed no hope, they removed Kevin from life support. He died the next day, a Sunday afternoon.
The Langs and their pastor at St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal Church worried that the 300-seat church wouldn’t be big enough for the funeral. They wanted to make sure they had room for all of his classmates who “might need some closure,” Debbie says.
So the service was held at the nearby Church of the Ascension. The Catholic church, nearly three times as big, was packed.
“For any teenager who might think of suicide … who might think that people don’t love them or care about them, if they could just look around and see all the random acts of kindness that are happening for Kevin,” Debbie says.
“It is so hurtful to the people who care about yo
u to go through this. Think about that before you go making that choice. I don’t think we had any idea how many friends Kevin had, how many people cared about him, how many people cared about us.”
Real men cry
As all of this was happening in Kansas, Eric Hipple in Michigan got a call from a cousin in Overland Park who had heard about Kevin. The cousin thought that Hipple should come here and meet with students and parents.
In his post-NFL life, Hipple is an outreach representative for the University of Michigan Depression Center, traveling the country to educate people about depression and its warning signs.
“I’m happy that the principal and parents are reaching out and grabbing other resources, because this is something that needs to be discussed,” says Hipple, who lives north of Ann Arbor. “It’s taking the confusion out of the chaos.”
When he talks to students, Hipple doesn’t explain how his son Jeff killed himself, which he described in his 2008 book, “Real Men Do Cry.” Jeff shot himself in the head with the shotgun Hipple always kept under his bed.
Hipple understands now that his son probably was suffering from depression. One in five high-school seniors, he says, has thought about suicide in the last year.
“I’m at peace with him,” he says, “what he went through and what I now understand it to be. I feel sad that that was the outcome. But where I am right now … his death has turned into actually saving quite a few lives, and that makes me happy.”
Eighty percent of suicides “are the direct result of nontreatment or nondiagnosis of a mental health issue,” Hipple says.
Stigma is often the hurdle standing in the way of seeking help, he says.
“It’s very hard for people to talk about those things,” he says. “We need to erase the stigma that it’s not a character trait. It’s a condition where the brain chemicals change. We can see it with MRIs, so we can picture it. We can see the change; we can see what it does to the brain. If we can wrap our (heads) around that, then you treat it like you’d treat anything else. You’d treat it like diabetes or a heart condition.”
He plans to meet the Langs, and he has a “big hug and congratulations” for them, because in speaking out about their son, he says, “they are saving lives. We can guarantee that.
“This is a hard thing to get through, a hard thing to get past. Most of it is understanding that you did everything under your power that you believed to be right. For us to think any different is wrong.”
Adds Northwest principal Murphy: “Debbie and Tim did everything you ask a parent to do.”
‘What’s done is done’
After Kevin took his life, people fumbled for the right words to say to the Langs. Tim and Debbie could feel the discomfort.
And though they say that they’ve felt nothing but love and support from everyone at Kevin’s school and their church, they know what some people must think.
They were probably bad parents.
“You feel like you’re not a good parent. How could this happen to a good parent?” Debbie cries. “But that’s not true.”
You feel, Tim says, “like everybody is looking at you. ‘Your son is the one who committed suicide.’ ”
They’ve been in counseling. It’s helping.
“What’s done is done,” says Tim. “You still have your memories, and hardships. But you still have to keep climbing those stairs. You know what I mean?”
He wants his son remembered for who he was, not for how he died.
Kevin Lang was a boy who loved to play football. The school has given the Langs season passes.
“We mean it when we say ‘Once a Husky, always a Husky,’ ” says principal Murphy.
Debbie is going to the games.
“I’m not,” says Tim.
ERIC HIPPLE IN AREA
What: Former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple, who lost a teenage son to suicide, will talk to the public about the signs of depression.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Blue Valley Northwest High School performing arts center, 13260 Switzer Road, Overland Park
DEPRESSION’S RED FLAGS
Not everyone with depression will attempt suicide, says Eric Hipple, outreach program coordinator for the University of Michigan Depression Center. But if these signs seem familiar, it’s best to be cautious and seek help. The risk of suicide can be greatest as the depression lifts, because the sufferer regains the energy to act on self-destructive thoughts.
•Talking about dying: Any mention of dying, disappearing, jumping, shooting one’s self or other types of self-harm.
•Recent loss: Through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship. Also, loss of job, status or interest in friends.
•Change in personality: Sadness, withdrawal, irritability, anxiety, fatigue, indecisiveness, apathy.
•Change in behavior: Inability to concentrate on school, work or routine tasks.
•Change in sleep patterns: Insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, nightmares.
•Change in eating habits: Loss of appetite and weight, or overeating.
•No hope for the future: Belief that things will never get better, that nothing will ever change.
To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Source: “Real Men Do Cry” by Eric Hipple, with Gloria Horsley and Heidi Horsley