Dave Duerson, former NFL player for the Chicago Bears and two-time Super Bowl champion, shot himself in the chest in February. I don’t usually make it to the sports page, so the news reached my radar when his death hit the front page of the New York Times (“A Suicide, a Last Request, a Family’s Questions“) on February 23rd, almost a week afterwards. This was front page news not because Duerson had died by suicide, but because he linked his suicide with possible brain disease. As the Times reported:
“The pertinent question is whether Duerson had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease recently found posthumously in about 20 retired players, a disease that has been linked to depression, cognitive impairment and occasionally suicide.”
In an earlier article, “N.F.L. Players Shaken by Duerson’s Suicide Message”, the Times noted that several others of these twenty players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy had also killed themselves.
As we now know, Duerson shot himself in the chest (rather than the head) with the intention of offering his brain to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. One of his final messages, preceded by a similar text to his ex-wife, was a scrawled note:
See that my brain is given to the NFL’s Brain Bank.”
Duerson wanted his brain to help with research into the physical brutality of football, a mentally brutal game too, it is becoming increasingly clear.
While Duerson’s act has the tint of generosity, it is worth noting the pain and suffering caused to Duerson’s family, friends, and fans by his suicide. Let’s not forget that, despite Duerson’s evident allegiance to fellow football players, he is also part of another, larger group: those who suffer from depression and have reached a point where ending life felt more manageable than going on. A sad, tragic, condition to find oneself in.
Approximately 33,000 people, in the United States alone, die by suicide each year. About 1 million globally. For each person who kills him or herself, an additional 12 to 25 make an attempt. That’s between 400,000 and 800,000 “unsuccessful suicides” each year in the United States— in the order of half a million cries for help, in just one country. Each event impacts numerous family members and friends. Suicide occurs amongst the young, the old, the middle-aged; it affects both men and women. While statistics sometimes illuminate racial and cultural variations (higher or lower rates), no group is immune. We are not familiar with suicide, not intimate with its aftermath, until suddenly we find that we are. What a confusing place this is to arrive.
Despite all of the taboos that have been broken in the last fifty years—all of the boundaries pushed, all of the changes, a greater openness, greater awareness of difference—the word, suicide, still troubles us. As it should. Suicide is deeply troubling. And yet it should not be a stigma, a shameful secret or embarrassment, carried around by surviving family and friends.
A recent conference, held in Florida, and set up by an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, addressed the subject of appropriate media practices for reporting on suicides. It is interesting to hear of and think about the reasons for journalistic protocols on suicide coverage. Chris Cobler, a reporter who attended on behalf of the Associated Press Managing Editors board of directors, took up the subject in a blog post, “What are best practices for reporting on suicide?” for a Texas newspaper, The Victoria Advocate:
“Suicide is one of the most difficult subjects any journalist encounters. Coverage may lead to feelings of anger, pain and denial directed by survivors toward the media organization.”
Two days later, in a new posting, Cobler report on the meeting (“Why are mental health issues so taboo?”) , citing Dan Romer of the Annenberg Public Policy Center sharing research that many journalists don’t want to cover suicide, and do so according to several criteria: if…
- It occurs in a public place or involves a public person
- It involves a murder-suicide
- It occurs in a prison or state institution
- It is a suicide in the military
Reporters fear contagion, the risk of others watching the coverage and replicating the act. Considering the responsibilities of journalists to report, and to report ethically, made me think anew about the conundrum of suicide—needing to speak of it, while of course not wanting in any way to encourage it, to present it as an option for escaping depression and deep psychic pain.
In the years since my father’s death, each time I read of someone’s suicide—whether a public figure or a complete stranger, I am deeply saddened; my father, his life and death, is inter-tangled with whoever I am reading about. But I need these accounts. I need to be reminded—of at least two things. One, that I am not alone in this peculiar reality, that, in fact, suicide is a real public health problem, not merely a freak occurrence, but an issue that demands attention, for survivors, and, of course, for those who suffer, from depression, from mental illness, enough to decide to end their own lives. Two, I, and others, need to be reminded of those who might need help around us, whether close to us, or not. I don’t kid myself that the problem of depression or mental health in general can be eradicated. On some level, we wouldn’t even want that. A variety of moods and of experiences, unhappiness as well as happiness, is part of, and essential to, the human condition. But there are questions of degree.
It seems that Dave Duerson wanted to find out if football had contributed to his declining health, his mental state, his loss of memory. Perhaps he wondered why his finances were in trouble, his house in foreclosure, his business bankrupt, why his marriage had gone wrong. His death suggests that he felt it was too late for him, but he wanted to find out what might be done for other players, past, current, and future. Of course, this would be valuable information, and perhaps Duerson’s brain will add to the knowledge amassed by such study. But, despite his stated altruistic intent—to assist others who might suffer at the hands of football—Duerson also presents classic risk factors for suicide, a devastation that can be avoided, even while it was not in this case. (See my first post on Mark Madoff, “How Madoff the younger became my kin,” for my take on the complicated relationship between what is done and cannot be changed—and what we can learn and do differently in present time.)
When I think of Dave Duerson now, I think of a man who didn’t want others to suffer as he was—a man trying to understand if the game he loved might have caused this suffering—and a man who, like others, needed help in overcoming the conditions in his life—shaped by his body and by his brain. He was a man who needed a hand. He had a brain that deserved better—broader choices and greater care, while he lived.
~ In the news… Former NFL lineman, Shane Dronett, who retired from the Atlanta Falcons in 2006 and shot himself three years later, was recently confirmed by Boston University School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy to have suffered from CTE. His wife, Chris Dronett, describes his grueling decline, and suicide, in an interview on CNN.com,”Ex-Falcons lineman had brain disease linked to concussions“. ~
~ Check out last week’s post (“Remembering—who we are“) for further investigation into how memory and narrative affect (and help) depression and grief. ~