by Brendan McLean, NAMI Communications Intern
With less than one week left, the final game of the NFL season is upon us, pitting the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Green Bay Packers. With six Super Bowl trophies calling the Steel City home and three under the watchful eyes of the Cheeseheads, two of the most storied franchises in NFL history are facing one another on the biggest stage for the first time.
This Sunday, Feb. 6, will feature two of the five top defenses in the league, each team readying itself for a black-and-blue, grind-it-out game. However, what has been underlying many of the games this season, and what some have claimed has affected the physicality of the game, is worry that the implementation of a new rule will affect this off-season. Prior to the beginning of this season, NFL commissioner Roger Gooddell expanded rules to limit head injuries by adding a clause that more explicitly outlawed helmet-first hits to the head and neck area. Perhaps this was the league’s best defense all season.
Previously, the NFL stated that concussions from football had no long-term effects on player’s health. However, a study conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes based on a general health survey of 2,552 retired NFL players, showed otherwise. It found concussions greatly increased the likelihood of depression later in life. Of the 595 players who recalled having three or more concussions, 20.2 percent said they had experienced depression—a rate three times higher than both that of the players who had not sustained concussions and the national rate.
Organizations like the Sports Legacy Institute are beginning to research the long-term effects of repeated brain trauma, revealing the potentially disastrous ramifications of concussions. Among some of the approaches being designed to limit the effects of hits to the head are new helmets constructed with better protection.
Depression: Not Just from Concussions
Although stories about players battling depression are a rarity in the NFL, the incidence of depression among athletes is similar to the rest of the population. Depression can, of course, arise for reasons unrelated to the incidence of a concussion—as it did for Terry Bradshaw. This former Steelers great and Hall of Famer is one of the most identifiable players living with depression. Bradshaw quarterbacked Pittsburgh to four Super Bowl wins in the 1970s and was elected Super Bowl Most Valuable Player twice.
Terry Bradshaw retired from the NFL in 1983 and went on to become an NFL commentator on TV. After his third divorce in the late 1990s, he was no longer able to manage his anxiety and was subsequently diagnosed with depression in 1999. Bradshaw admitted that throughout his career he often experienced anxiety attacks after games, regardless of whether his team won or lost. On many occasions, he would find himself crying for no apparent reason.
Bradshaw did not feel his identity as a football player allowed him to be “emotionally weak” and attempted to self-medicate with alcohol. Realizing this was merely leading him on a path of self-destruction, the sports icon finally came forward. With a combination of talk therapy and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), Bradshaw has been able to manage his depression. Consequently, he has become a mental health advocate, urging people to not shy away from receiving help.
The High Price of Self-medication—or No Medication
Another player who was diagnosed with depression after entering the NFL is 1998 Heisman Trophy winner and current Miami Dolphins running back Ricky Williams. Considered an oddball for his off-field behavior, Williams often shied away from media attention. Later reports indicated that Williams was beginning to experience feelings of depression in college. During his senior season at the University of Texas, Williams smoked marijuana one night and felt the mild depression he had been experiencing lift. As a result, he continued to smoke for the first years of his career, ultimately testing positive for drugs on numerous occasions. Because he was facing a four-game suspension and $650,000 fine for multiple failed drug tests, Williams retired from football in 2004.
Why didn’t he simply take an antidepressant, or another legal form of treatment for depression? Ricky Williams believed that marijuana proved much more effective than the SSRIs he had taken. During his time away from football in 2004, Williams traveled to India and Southeast Asia, where he discovered that the benefits of yoga and meditation could combat his feelings of depression. He claimed these techniques were even more effective than smoking marijuana for treating his social anxiety and depression.
Williams’ experiences have some scientific backup. In multiple research studies, including Mendelson et al., 2010, Descilo et al., 2009 and Duraiswamy et al., 2007, yoga and other forms of meditation have proved beneficial in treating depression as well as schizophrenia, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the effects of chronic stress. However, it is important to note that in general it is not solely yoga or meditation that helps battle depression, but one of these practices in combination with other treatments.
Williams, however, continued to smoke marijuana and, as a consequence of his multiple failed drug tests, was suspended from the NFL for the entire 2006 season. Other players have battled depression in recent years, some with more tragic outcomes. Three-time Pro Bowl selection Shawn Andrews, now with the New York Giants, has battled depression throughout his career. Twenty-three-year-old Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley began experiencing depression after being placed on injured reserve. Unfortunately, he did not receive help in time and committed suicide prior to the 2010 season.
Regardless of the amount of mental health support the NFL is providing for its players, the stigma associated with depression and other mental illnesses tends to affect men profoundly. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, while men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women, they seek treatment half as often.
The Battle Behind the Game
This Sunday in the hours leading up to the Super Bowl you will see Terry Bradshaw on Fox’s NFL pre-game show. With no previous knowledge you would most likely never suspect that this jovial individual, who often serves as a comic foil for the rest of the broadcasters, suffers from depression.
But Bradshaw is not the only individual on the field or on the sidelines that has experienced symptoms of depression. Just as losses come with wins, it is important to remember that with triumphs come heartaches. And as noted in the case of Kenny McKinley, sometimes those setbacks can take a tragic toll.
Some of the players on the field may be diagnosed with depression, while others may refuse to accept that they are experiencing depression. Regardless of the color of the jersey or helmet the person is wearing across the field—an athlete should extend a hand to help him off the ground—at least once the whistle blows and the game is over. As we fight against stigma and for quality information and treatment for depression, we at NAMI can find inspiration in this spirit of teamwork that extends beyond teams.