Thursday, May 03, 2012

Junior Seau's Death Comes With No Immediate Answers

The video of Junior Seau's distraught mother -- not long after learning of her son's death by suicide -- pretty much says it all.

(This isn't graphic in any way, but it is extremely emotional, so keep that in mind before you hit the play button.)

It's a mother who now has to bury a son. And in front of the world, she's trying to come to grips with that and find some reason why.

So are the rest of us.

Junior Seau, a feared linebacker and one of the all-time greats in the NFL, died Wednesday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 43, and leaves behind three kids and an ex-wife to go along with his poor, grief-stricken mother.

Seau is the latest in a line way too long. A line of pro athletes who have lost their lives too soon. He's the eighth member of the Chargers' 1994 team that went to the Super Bowl to die.

(He's the first of that group to take his own life. Three of the eight died of heart issues, one of a drug overdose, one from a lightning strike, one in a car accident, and one in a plane crash.)

Cue the speculation, because there are no definitive answers. Seau left no note, and no one has indicated there were any signs of depression.

Seau’s death has fueled speculation that a 20-year pro football career inevitably included head injuries that took a permanent toll.

Recent studies have found higher rates of cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression among former players with a history of concussions.

A 2007 study by the University of North Carolina found a threefold increase of depression among retired NFL players who had three or more concussions.
Getting help

Depression can be treated and relief is within reach. Here's how to get help.

“There is an association between TBI (traumatic brain injury) and mood disorders, depression being one version of that,” said Dr. John Reed, chief executive of the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, which is researching the mechanisms and possible treatments of traumatic brain injury.

“It’s important to remember that it’s also entirely possible he could have had an unrelated mood disorder,” Reed said. “One in four Americans sometime in their life will develop clinical depression.”

We may never know anything definitive. Because Seau shot himself in the chest, there is at least a lingering hope that his family will allow CTE researchers to look at his brain, searching for the signs of CTE, a concussion-related brain disease that is still a mystery to many. To this point, it can only be discovered after death by an examination of a person's brain.

In a piece for Esquire, Chris Jones examines this part of the issue.

Because Seau apparently shot himself in the chest, his death will be inevitably compared to Dave Duerson's, the former Chicago Bear who also shot himself in the chest last year, better to preserve his brain for science and lawsuits. There is no doubt that over his twenty brutal seasons in the NFL, Seau suffered his share of brain damage. There will be dark shadows found inside of him. And everyone will talk about how something has to change and how terrible this all is and, gee, is it really worth all this for a game? And then everyone will buy their tickets and popcorn and get ready for some subtly altered version of football.

... Why do football players kill themselves? On the surface, at least, they do it for the same reason hockey players like Rick Rypien and Wade Belak do. And for the same reason taxi drivers and ballet dancers and poets and construction workers and janitors and teachers and doctors do: They do it because they are depressed, because they are in such a dark place that they choose death. It's a hard thing to think about, but if you do anything in the memory of Junior Seau today, please think about this for a moment: How bad would your life have to be for you to put a gun to your chest and put a bullet into your heart? How deep would be that despair?

And he's right. It's not a fun thing to think about, but just ponder for a moment how bad you things would need to be before you even consider something like this. And how sickening is the thought?

You can't rationalize suicide, no matter what. Even if researchers declare that Seau was a puddle of a man compared to a "normal" 43-year-old, it doesn't solve everything.

After all, it's easy to ask why someone wouldn't get help in such a situation? And it's a reasonable conclusion. If your life is this bad, your thoughts this irrational, why wouldn't you ask someone for some help?

None of it will answer every question that comes up. At the end of the day, depression is an illness. It can be treated effectively, but someone has to recognize the symptoms and warning signs first. Please don't ignore them in yourself, or the ones you love.

It will be a long summer of discussion about the impact that contact sports have on the people who play them. Seau's death won't be forgotten, and hopefully it can be taken as a sign that depression can happen to anyone, no matter their status in society.

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