The NFL and suicide: Preventing future tragedies

by Michael Ulanday on May 9, 2012 · 1 comment

in suicide


NFL great Junior Seau commits suicide at 43.

When the news of Junior Seau’s death broke on May 2, my mind immediately flashed back to Dave Duerson. I wondered if Seau was the victim of some heartless act or if he had done this to himself. However, as more details began to emerge — he was found in his home alone, dead from a gunshot wound, a gun near his hand — it became clear Seau had taken his own life. The circumstances of his death instantly drew parallels to Duerson’s own suicide, and naturally, speculation arose about the role chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) may have played in Seau’s death.                                                                        

It may be weeks before an autopsy determines what (if any) role CTE played in Junior Seau’s death, but the paramount concern in this tragedy shouldn’t be what drove him to this end; rather, it should be what could have been done to prevent it. In the wake of Seau’s suicide, scores of opinion pieces and memorials have come out, often offering commentary on the issue of concussions and player safety in professional sports. Brandon Marshall, for example, recently wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Sun-Times, but rather than look for somewhere to lay blame, Marshall looks for a means to preventing further tragedy. 

A professional football player, Brandon Marshall recently announced he had been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and had been seeking treatment for it. In doing so, Marshall became a passionate advocate for not just mental illness issues, but for treatments available to help individuals with mental illness. In his op-ed piece, Marshall briefly broaches the topic of CTE, but mainly focuses on the stigmas associated with mental illness, gender roles regarding emotion, the idea of the machismo persona in sports and the interplay between the three.

He also talks about the attitudes toward emotional expression that are espoused early on in life (it’s okay for girls to cry, but not boys), and how those attitudes set up misguided perceptions of what defines strength. Marshall argues that this stigma is only exacerbated in professional sports, where an athlete’s ego is the measure of toughness and ultimately, success:

In sports, those who show they are hurt or have mental weakness or pain are told: ‘You’re not tough. You’re not a man. That’s not how the players before you did it.’

“It’s a cycle,” Marshall writes. While in treatment, Marshall had to learn “how to think, not what to think.” Indeed, overcoming decades of a stringent way of thinking takes effort, competent guidance and a good deal of faith. While it was too late for Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, Brandon Marshall saw that he was fortunate enough to break the cycle and understands that it’s not too late for the living. He ardently endorses the various forms of therapy he utilized in treatment — namely DBT, and mentalization therapy — and calls for fellow athletes to utilize the resources at their disposal to get the proper help they need. 

Marshall speaks to the greater need to eradicate stigmas associated with mental illness, thus lifting any potential barriers to successful treatment. The unfortunate fact is that with mental illness, a definitive diagnosis is much more elusive than a broken rib or a sprained ankle. It is not a body part that can be wrapped, iced, stretched and rested back to health. It’s an entire state of being that has to be dealt with in a coherent and comprehensive manner.

What brought Marshall back from the brink could prove to make a difference in so many lives. As vital as it is to discern the causes of mental illness (physical trauma, emotional trauma, genetics, etc.), an equal emphasis must be placed on effectively treating these issues as they come to light. Brandon Marshall’s position as an advocate is important in light of this tragedy, but all could be for naught if others don’t step up and reclaim their mental health.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Bree May 10, 2012 at 7:05 am

Great blog post. It’s imperative light is shed on this subject because mental illness affects so many athletes.

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