Is there a link?
To be sure, both war with its IEDs and football with its tackles can bruise a brain. The fact that both sets of bruised brains now are being examined to see if trauma plays a similar role in incubating suicidal impulses can only help, both on the battlefield and the gridiron.
Last weekend, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend with a handgun and then shot and killed himself at Arrowhead Stadium in front of several coaches. The same day, a member of the Cleveland Browns’ grounds crew killed himself at their practice facility.
Being a San Diego resident, these two NFL related suicides are a heartbreaking reminder of the unforgettable day in May when Junior Seau, the very popular 43-year-old former Charger was found dead in bedroom with a revolver near his body and a gun shot to his chest. On April 19, Ray Easterling, a 1970’s Atlanta Falcons safety, died as a result of self-inflicting gunshot wound. A year earlier, former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest, saying in a note that he wanted his brain donated to the study of football head injuries.
The 2012 active-duty and veteran suicide rates are also climbing, with the Army of 166 through October more than the grim tally of 165 for all of last year. Even worse, it’s estimated that 126 veterans each week, — more than 6,500 annually — are taking their own lives.
In a recent research study, scientists compared autopsy results of four combat vets and four athletes, as well as mice exposed to a simulated blast. Their findings showed evidence that CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) — a disease that progresses over time resulting in memory loss, suicidal thoughts and aggression — was detectable on the brains autopsied. Although this is an early study and more research needs to be conducted, the initial findings are noteworthy.
Scott Tinley, a multi-Ironman World Champion, and author of Racing a Sunset, sees many parallels between the two callings.
“Maybe sport’s greatest gift to the world is the substitute of defeat for death,” says Tinely. He interviewed hundreds of retired athletes to find out what their transitional experiences were like. “The common thread was loss of camaraderie, esprit de corps and feeling alive,” Tinely said. “When they left their sport, they lost their identity, they felt no sense of purpose, they missed the rigor and suicidal thoughts slowly crept in.”
Athletes on the downslope of their career reminded him of two other groups: “returning combat veterans and the empty-nester mother.”
Miles Bower, a former Marine who works for the Travis Manion Foundation helping vets transition to civilian life, also sees parallels. “Sports were — to an extent — formalized in antiquity to give warriors a forum for training/leading/testing themselves — generally being men — without actually killing each other. It seems that at their highest levels, both football and overseas combat are taking similar tolls, and both exist in a place that ‘normal’ people just don’t go at any point in their lives…both physically and mentally.”
On the other hand, is it fair to compare these vastly different populations? Professional athletes make considerable more money than service members. Their lives are surrounded by fame and they typically ended up where they did because of predisposed physical and athletic abilities. Military members, on the other hand, often join because they had few other options. Their salaries are modest, and they hardly live a life of stardom.
But football players and soldiers both engage in daily activities that are extremely physical, with increased exposure to head injuries. They are the epitome of team players, shouldering an overwhelming burden and responsibility toward their peers.
There has been some new evidence indicating that once people get used to heightened levels of adrenalin, its hard to go back to a more traditional – some ight call it boring — life. Perhaps figuring out how to recalibrate the post-war and post-game brain to fit into a more normal life is the key.
An outfit called Neurotopia thinks its has the edge on that, both for athletes and soldiers. Their goal is a tool to train the brain, much like a bench press is used to train specific muscles. They work at training people to slow down brain activity and increase its blood flow, oxygen, and nutrients.
“This can repair the effects of stress and decreases the persistent strain on the brain’s physiology,” says Bryan Hixon, Nuerotopia’s CEO. “The more a soldier or athlete trains, their capacity to resist stress and recover quickly, the more resilient they become.”
Football players and soldiers are finely tuned machines that are depended upon to operate at a very high levels. Stress and adrenaline, when managed properly, can be the greatest weapons in combat performance and on the playing field. During intense moments, the stress response in the brain activates adrenaline, which increases muscle strength, physical speed, and dilates the pupils allowing faster reaction times. However, prolonged exposure to stress can condition the brain to remain in a hyper-vigilant state. Overtime, this persistent strain can change the brain’s electrical patterns which can cause a decrease in slow-wave sleep cycles, impaired regulation of adrenaline, and emotional reactivity.
Neurotopia’s technology is currently being implemented on some Army bases.
I’d like to see more emphasis on prevention, education and resilience building. We need to make “mental healthy check-ups” as commonplace as routine physicals.
Military members and football players—and all other at-risk groups—need greater emotional intelligence coaching as part of their routine training. Even more importantly, leaders and coaches need to learn how to be amateur mental-health counselors. They need to learn how to recognize early warning signs along with effectively mentoring and supporting early intervention.