On Sports, Stigma and Suicide: It’s Time To Talk

Posted: September 8, 2011

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The recent suicide of professional hockey player Wade Belak is the latest in a string of sports tragedies—his death follows those of New York Rangers forward Derek Boogaard and Winnipeg Jets forward Rick Rypien. There have been many others over the years. Just last February, NFL Football player Dave Duerson of the Chicago Bears committed suicide. Duerson believed the answers would be found through research, and he decided to donate his brain to science before he died. It was found that he suffered from successive traumatic brain injuries that may have contributed to his deteriorating psychiatric state. Research has shown us that mental illness is often a combination of environment and genetic predisposition. Boston University’s recent study on retired athletes found that those who had had three or more concussions had a three-fold higher incidence of depression compared to players with fewer brain injuries. While these studies find so much in the physical, there is an important aspect that few are willing to expose: the devastating social stigma that comes with mental illness. This can be even crueler for men in our society than for women. We’ve created an environment where we idolize athletes, as well as men in general some argue, for being tough, resilient and infallible. Enforcing these stereotypes leaves no room for vulnerability, disclosure, or to do anything other than “tough it out.” Would any of these athletes be alive today had they disclosed their mental illness to an accepting society and received better treatment? An astounding 1 in 4 Americans—that equals 77 MILLION Americans—suffer a mental illness. There is no escaping the fact that this statistic reveals we are all personally affected in some way by mental illness. We have triumphed in overcoming what seemed in recent decades to be irreversible stigmas like cancer, HIV, and sexual orientation. It is time to overcome the stigma of mental illness. It is time to create change in our own circles and exchanges, and elevate this topic into the fore of our societal dialogue. We can celebrate the fact that breakthroughs are being made every day through research, and that science continues to illuminate the profound mysteries of the brain. Let’s join in our power to break the silence so that no one must suffer alone. Lives can and will be improved, and it all begins with our willingness to talk—and act.

By Dianne Ackerman, Associate Director of Communications and Public Relations, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation