On Junior Seau, toughness and an anti-stigma hero you might have missed

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on July 6, 2012 · 3 comments

in suicide

There’s a notable journal in the mental health arena that you might not have considered for your must-read list. It contains thorough, highly informative articles on mental health issues that are scientifically informed yet highly relevant to experiences of real human beings.

It’s called Sports Illustrated.

Of course, SI is not exactly a scientific journal or a clinical periodical, but you should know that it has a consistent track record of taking readers beyond the machismo and glamor of elite athletics to zoom in on the human beings whom millions of us watch and identify with week after week. A recent issue, for example, told the stories of four minor league baseball players, one of whom made a deliberate decision to use performance-enhancing drugs, was the only one of the four to make it to the big leagues and who paid the price in emotional problems, addictions and thoughts of suicide. Also enlightening has been SI’s regular reporting on the toll of concussions on football players and the reluctance of the NFL to take action to protect the players.

However, what has impressed me most has been SI’s stories on mental illness among high-performing athletes. The leadership of the magazine, together with the courage of the athletes who talk publicly about their struggles, has been of incalculable value in reducing the stigma of mental illness and making it more acceptable to seek help.

Sharing stories

For example, about this time last year, in an article titled, “A Light in the Darkness,” SI writer Pablo Torre told the stories of three major league baseball players who were willing to speak about their emotional problems, substance abuse and suicidality, as well as their journeys in treatment. In it, Torre noted, “Baseball is taking the lead in pro sports in addressing depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.”

Junior Seau commits suicide.More recently, in telling the story of Junior Seau’s suicide (blogged about recently by colleague Michael Ulanday), SI eschewed any inclination to present a sanitized, hero-worshiping piece in favor of one that spoke to the humanity of the man, for better and for worse. Seau was the stuff of football legend: a fierce, hard-hitting linebacker, perennial all-pro and well-liked teammate, who seemed impervious to pain. (In a 14-year career in the NFL, he missed a total of 9 games.) A retrospective on his personal life revealed many red flags that went largely unacknowledged by others or even by himself.

Indeed, in a soul-searching commentary in the same issue, Peter King confessed that he was among the writers who lionized Seau for his disregard for pain:

“Seau insisted that if you could walk, you could play. And we all ate it up. There’s much in that to be admired, certainly. But when you don’t acknowledge pain in your professional life…how will you ever acknowledge pain when the cheering stops? By all accounts, Junior Seau never acknowledged his personal pain – whether it was the black veil of depression or the misery of not having a life he wanted to live – to anyone.” 

Thus, what might have been an idealized but empty tribute to an icon, with shrugged shoulders about the “mystery” of why “a guy who had everything” would suddenly kill himself, unfolded instead as a poignant lesson in reality: the blood, bone and psyche of a giant.

Suicide theory

It is worth noting that a prominent current theory of suicide maintains that a key factor that makes suicide possible, despite our robust survival instinct, is repeated exposure to injury. This desensitizing process is thought to take some of the fear out of self-harm, to the extent that depression and despair are able to evolve into self-destructive action. Might this be a factor in the suicide of athletes, when combined with depression, substance abuse, loss and other vulnerabilities? Should we, in fact, be discouraging “toughness” in sports?” 

Not at all, in my view. There is a place for toughness in sports, just as there’s a place for toughness in the military, in the healthcare professions, in ballet and in life in general. But the lesson here is that there is an overriding need for balance in health and well-being, comprised not only of toughness, but also of self-knowledge, self-nurturance and knowing when to persist in the face of pain and when to yield to it. The last of these qualities is much easier named than accomplished and requires perspective that is often missing in sports and too often missing in other life arenas as well.

We can hope that in telling stories such as Junior Seau’s, Sports Illustrated is helping athletes and their mentors develop this too-rare form of wisdom.

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