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March 4, 2012
By John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
The evidence is in, and the death of NFL football player Junior Seau has been ruled a suicide. The speculation is that he suffered from depression as a result of the concussions he sustained as a pro football player in the U.S. Seau spent most of his football career as a San Diego Charger.
Many in the news media are portraying this as some sort of new news — that having your head repeatedly banged and bashed can cause long-lasting brain damage. Even with a padded helmet, there’s been a wealth of research demonstrating that head injuries still occur. The human head just wasn’t meant for years and years of such repeated abuse.
It’s also not the first time we’ve known of this link between football playing, concussions, and being at a much higher risk for depression (and even dementia). Perhaps this time the message will get through.
The Chicago Tribune reminds us of what we already know:
On Wednesday, some saw similarities between the deaths of Seau and former Bears safety Dave Duerson, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest last year. In a suicide note, Duerson had asked his family to donate his brain to the Boston University School of Medicine.
Researchers from that school later determined Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions, and that played a role in triggering his depression.
Duerson’s case isn’t the first brain to have been studied, demonstrating a clear link between physical damage and trauma in the brain, and cognitive problems later in life. These problems can include issues with memory and attention, and can even lead to dementia.
Another concern for semi-celebrities like Seau and Duerson is one less talked-about in the media. That working for 20 years as a pro football player — being an integral part of a team, in the spotlight, making a weekly contribution, taking home a paycheck that pales in comparison to any of ours — sets up a lot of players for an inevitable letdown in retirement. How can a player transform their lives at age 40, when most of the rest of us are only half way through our careers?
Some players make the transition into a normal life and retirement well. Others have a more difficult time, and seek out continuing their career in football as an analyst, broadcaster, or even coach.
Still others — perhaps even Junior Seau — have a more difficult time leaving the football spotlight. Whether it was due in part to concussions or not, we may never know. But depression could’ve occurred even without a history of concussions, since this kind of career transition is not automatically an easy one to make.
Seau’s family announced today that they would allow his brain be donated to Boston University researchers to study further.
Depression — no matter what its cause — is still one of those things that is eminently treatable. Hopefully Seau’s story will help encourage others to seek out treatment for their own depression. Before it becomes too late.
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Junior Seau struggled with insomnia, used prescription drugs for years, report says
SAN DIEGO – Former NFL great Junior Seau, who committed suicide a month ago, suffered from insomnia for years and relied on prescription drugs to help him sleep, USA Today reported Friday.
The paper said it interviewed more than 50 friends, family members, neighbors and former teammates in an effort to piece together possible clues on why the former Chargers linebacker shot himself in the chest in his San Diego-area home May 2.
A common theme that emerged was the 43-year-old’s persistent sleeping troubles, and possible misuse of the prescription drugs that were meant to help him sleep.
At least four friends told USA Today they believed Seau took Ambien, or a generic form of the drug, zolpidem.
The prescribing information for Ambien, approved by the FDA, warns that suicidal thoughts can be exhibited by depressed patients taking the class of drugs.
Friends reported that Seau drank regularly, despite warnings against taking the drug and consuming alcohol, and furthermore, continued using the drug even though he was not getting a full night’s sleep.
“He told me he usually woke up around one or two and couldn’t go back to sleep,” said Nancy Emsley, who knew Seau from the local gym. Emsley said Seau “just rolled his eyes” when she told him he needed to sleep for eight hours after taking Ambien.
Mark Walczak, who played with Seau in the 1990s, said he saw Seau use sleeping medication in 2005 when he visited the 12-time Pro Bowler in Miami, where he played for the Dolphins.
Though Seau never reported a concussion in his 20 NFL seasons, sleeping disorders are common in people who have experienced traumatic brain injuries, University of North Carolina researcher Kevin Guskiewicz told USA Today.
Seau’s family has not publicly announced a decision on whether they will donate his brain to researchers studying the long-term neurological effects of concussions suffered by athletes.