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Athlete Suicides - Are Concussions Really to Blame For the Trend?

Junior Seau was the best defensive player in San Diego Chargers history. Junior Seau was the best defensive player in San Diego Chargers history.

The suicide of former NFL superstar and philanthropist Junior Seau earlier this month has left many of us, particularly fans of the late linebacker, wondering why. Why would someone with seemingly every reason to live choose to end it all? To those of us struggling to find meaningful (or any) employment, Seau's suicide -- like many other celebrities'-- is an almost-complete mystery. Seau was a legend on and off the field, especially to San Diegans like myself who grew up with his name everywhere. Why would he feel so alone and helpless in a city that adores him?

Media has been quick to point the finger at concussions -- traumatic brain injury (TBI) that is caused by blows to the head, all too common in contact sports like football, which can cause debilitating side effects. But the answer, like many aspects of the human brain, may be more complex.

Celebrities are prone to mental illness that often goes untreated or self-medicated with substance abuse. It seems like every month we lose a new star to overdose or suicide. But with professional athletes, the line between mental and physical malady may be more blurred, as brain injury can cause some of the same symptoms that trigger addiction, like depression, sleep disorders, and anxiety. Many wonder if the recent rash of athlete suicides --more than a dozen in the last five years-- may be linked to concussions that occur during the player's career and manifest once the party ends. But suicides within the sports community are not limited to high-impact sports like football, boxing, wrestling and hockey. This leads psychologists to look at other factors such as the highs and lows, as well as the brief nature of most athletes' careers and the extreme pressure to stay on top. Such stresses, especially combined with the emotional trauma that naturally occurs in life, can wreak havoc on a person's psyche.

But suicides within the sports community are not limited to high-impact sports like football, boxing, wrestling and hockey. This leads psychologists to look at other factors such as the highs and lows, as well as the brief nature of most athletes' careers and the extreme pressure to stay on top.

This was likely the case for former Olympic Skier Jaret "Speedy" Peterson and former MLB pitcher Hideki Irabu, both of whom took their lives last year. Both had epic rises and falls. Irabu was a much-hyped pitching prodigy who famously failed to meet the lofty expectations of Yankees fans -- and the Japanese people to whom he was a source of national pride. He was even the butt of a Seinfeld joke after his disappointing first season, for which he made a hefty $12 million paycheck. He battled depression and alcoholism until he took his own life at the age of 42.

Peterson, who also battled addiction, won an Olympic Silver Medal in Vancouver in 2010 after famously bombing and being drunkenly booted from the Torino Olympics in 2006. The pressure to perform drove Peterson, who named himself after the famous comic Speed Racer, to the end of his proverbial road in a remote Utah canyon at the age of 29. Skiers are certainly not immune to concussions, but in Peterson's case the extreme highs and lows of a tumultuous life in the limelight likely just took their toll.

In other athlete suicides, concussions so seem like a major factor in their victim's mental morose. In 2007, professional wrestler Chris Benoit went on a killing spree that started with his wife and seven year old son and ended with himself. Experts blamed everything from brain damage caused by repeated concussions, to steroid and substance abuse. These were probably all factors in the tragedy.

As an "invisible injury," there are often no visible signs of trauma to a person who has suffered a concussion, leading to under-diagnosis and improper treatment. The pressure to simply "walk it off" --or pop a few Vicodin-- can be intense when your career can literally live and die by a single game, or even a single play.

Concussions, particularly when repeated or intense, can cause vision, speech, movement, and cognitive issues, as well as less obvious manifestations that can be even more debilitating, like depression, anxiety, and the addictions that often accompany them. Head injuries can also cause severe sleep disturbance and lack of libido-- that could depress anyone.

Last year, another NFL player, Dave Duerson, committed suicide via gunshot to the chest, just like Seau did this month. A suicide note requested that his brain be donated to science, where researchers discovered substantial trauma caused by repeated blows to his delicate brain tissue. Many wonder if Seau wanted similar treatment post-mortem, but as he left no suicide note or Advanced Care Directive, his family must make the choice and their devout Samoan faith may preclude the world from ever fully understanding the extent that brain injury may have impacted his decision to end his life.

But Seau was no stranger to a different kind of stress than most of us can understand, and his post-NFL life was not without problems. He was arrested in 2010 on suspicion of domestic violence, and five hours later he "accidentally" drove his Escalade off a cliff near his home at around 60 mph, landing on the beach --relatively unhurt-- 100 feet below. His miraculous survival two years ago made his untimely death this month all the more tragic. But the true tragedy may have been what "The Game" and the ever-present glare of the media did to Seau, his family, and the countless past-and-future athletes, when the bright stadium lights and camera flashes fail to show us the real picture.

© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2012



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Junior Seau was one of the NFL’s all-time great players.
Last modified on Wednesday, 27 June 2012 18:19

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