Last week I wrote a very personal column about my son Colin's struggle with depression and brain trauma, which most likely is a result of his years of taking hits during his 10 years as a football player. Since I published that story on Wednesday, I received many private messages and emails from individuals, not only in McKinney, but across the country, who are dealing with a family member who is dealing with the effects of brain trauma, which has surfaced as suicidal tendencies, depression or memory loss.
On Saturday, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed a murder/suicide that appears to have caught everyone around him off guard. Belcher, who was only 25, is the latest of several NFL players to commit suicide. And though we don't know his cause, it brings to the forefront more questions about chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which is a chronic brain disease that is caused by repeated hits to the head. Studies increasingly show that CTE leads to depression, confusion, and may eventually progress to full-blown dementia. The disease involves brain tissue degeneration and a buildup of an abnormal protein called tao, also found in patients with Alzheimer's disease.
Was it CTE, the use of anabolic steroids, or something else that caused the 25 year old Belcher to snap? We may never know, but surely it raises more questions.
Many of the personal messages I received in response to my column center around young adults who are dealing with mental health issues as a result of having experienced brain trauma through athletics - soccer, hockey, football, gymnastics and the list goes on. Most are suffering in silence. Many don't have the resources for treatment available to them - there is a shortage of mental health professionals who deal with this where they live, or they simply can't afford it. There is still a stigma attached to mental health issues. Mention suicide and people seem to run the other way if the topic surfaces.
The members of our family attended the family therapy portion of Colin's treatment at the facility in Arizona where we met other families who were in the "trauma" track. Each family in our group had a child who had attempted suicide. Family therapy group was a safe place to talk about it - to cry together, to support each other, to say to each other, "God, I really know what you are going through." We don't usually have that in our own environments.
I felt a mixture of sadness, anger, fear, hope, and joy as the week went on. I felt a sadness that so many young people feel their lives are worthless, anger at our society - what are we doing to our kids? - and at myself for my part in his illness. I felt fear that I (we) would have no idea how to navigate this life, fear that I helped cause it, huge fear that Colin would take his life. I felt hope as I began to understand Colin's illness and saw glimmers of hope for recovery, hope for change and most of all, hope for him to lead a life that would be filled with less pain. I felt the joy that comes with learning that healing is possible, that change is possible, that a better life is possible, that as a family, we can support and love each other.
INCREASE IN TEEN SUICIDE
Sadly, evidence shows that there is an increase in suicide among teens. In June of 2012, the CDC real eased findings that the rate of suicide among teens had jumped from 6.3 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011. It is the third leading cause of death among 10 to 24 year olds. This is shocking.
Kids shouldn't have to lead lives of misery so intense that they think about suicide as the only means of peace. Parents shouldn't have to say good-bye to kids who won't go to prom or even graduate from high school, who won't go to college, get married or have their own kids. Parents shouldn't have to bury their kids. The wounds that are left by someone who takes his own life are gaping wounds that effect everyone in the family.
There is speculation that cyber bullying has added increasing pressure and stress to the lives of young people. One in three teens has experienced cyber-threats online. It's easier to say mean and hurtful things to each other via social media or texting than it was years ago when the same hurtful words had to be uttered face to face. Comments, photos and gossip are spread virally in a matter of minutes and the victim has little or no control.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, conclusions drawn from the National Comorbidity Survey show that half of all depression related illnesses present by the time the child is 14 years old, yet the majority go undiagnosed and untreated. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2005, 16.9% of U.S.. high school students seriously considered suicide, and 8.4% had attempted suicide at least once during the preceding year. Clearly this indicates a need for screening and some type of intervention.
Kids are masters at hiding their feelings from their parents. They learn how to fake it while they suffer in silence. They often don't know how to broach the subject with their parents or counselors. They don't know where to turn for help. Kids who don't receive treatment often face a life-long battle with mental health issues.
CAUSES OF SUICIDAL THOUGHTS
I'm no psychiatrist or counselor, but why do people feel the kind of despair that makes them want to die?
According to an article in Psychology Today, there are six reasons people attempt suicide: depression, psychosis, they're impulsive, often under the influence of drugs and alcohol, they're crying out for help, they've made a tragic mistake and go too far, or, they are taking control of their life, as in the case of a terminal illness.
Also, high stress can also lead to suicidal thinking and suicide attempts. Studies have shown a direct link between long-term stress, for instance in the situation of a highly stressful job or strained marriage, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term stress can lead to depression and anxiety, which may lead one to attempt suicide as a means to escape the continuous feelings of hopelessness and despair.
Higher incidents of drug and alcohol use among teens and young adults also contributes to the increase in suicide rate. Teens often don't realize that if they are already feeling depressed. Alcohol is a depressant, which exacerbates their feelings of sadness.
Teens and young people in today's world perhaps feel more and more stress from family, and society, in general, as they perceive that they must be in constant competition to be the best student, the best athlete, attend the best college, get "the best" job and so on. Their lives are filled with stress at a much earlier age.
Of course, we now know that role that brain trauma, or CE, plays in suicide and suicide attempts.
HELP IS NEEDED
My own family experience drives me to wonder what we can do as a society, as individuals, to affect change.
What can I do? Share, educate, talk to others about the problem, start a support group?
As I said in my previous column, I love football. But I have to admit that I now watch each game with a different perception. Instead of cheering each time a player inflicts a big hit on another, I cringe. I think about the player's family - what may they, and their loved ones, be facing in the future - anger issues, memory problems, early onset of Alzheimer's Disease?
I sometimes think I shouldn't turn the television on - that I should boycott watching football altogether, however, I'd be the proverbial needle in a haystack. When I suggested to a friend that we not watch a game on a recent Sunday, he looked at me in horror, and said, "You're kidding, right?" But just maybe, if we, one by one, make our voices heard by not turning on a football game, even if it's only one game, we can get the message across that our kids lives are worth more than the glory we associate with being an NFL player.
Education, screening, support and treatment are needed at a much younger age.
Following are some of the possible warning signs that a person may be at risk for suicide:
- Excessive sadness or moodiness — Long-lasting sadness and mood swings can be symptoms of depression, a major risk factor for suicide.
- Sudden calmness — Suddenly becoming calm after a period of depression or moodiness can be a sign that the person has made a decision to end his or her life.
- Withdrawal — Choosing to be alone and avoiding friends or social activities also are possible symptoms of depression. This includes the loss of interest or pleasure in activities the person previously enjoyed.
- Changes in personality and/or appearance — A person who is considering suicide might exhibit a change in attitude or behavior, such as speaking or moving with unusual speed or slowness. In addition, the person might suddenly become less concerned about his or her personal appearance.
- Dangerous or self-harmful behavior — Potentially dangerous behavior, such as reckless driving, engaging in unsafe sex, and increased use of drugs and/or alcohol might indicate that the person no longer values his or her life.
- Recent trauma or life crisis — A major life crises might trigger a suicide attempt. Crises include the death of a loved one or pet, divorce or break-up of a relationship, diagnosis of a major illness, loss of a job, or serious financial problems.
- Making preparations — Often, a person considering suicide will begin to put his or her personal business in order. This might include visiting friends and family members, giving away personal possessions, making a will, and cleaning up his or her room or home. Some people will write a note before committing suicide.
- Threatening suicide — Not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it. However, every threat of suicide should be taken seriously.
- Having trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Performing self-destructive behaviors, such as heavily drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs, or cutting their body
- Pulling away from friends or not wanting to go out
- Suddenly having trouble in school or work
- Talking about death or suicide, or even saying that they want to hurt themselves
- Talking about feeling hopeless or guilty
- Changing sleep or eating habits
Arranging ways to take their own life (such as buying a gun or many pills)