Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Role of Identity in Athlete Suicide

Following the suicide of long-time NFL great Junior Seau earlier this month, news media focused on the question of whether playing football - or, more specifically, suffering concussions - could involve brain trauma that might ultimately lead to clinical depression, and even suicide.

However, an alternate possibility discussed on WBUR's Radio Boston today seems more compelling to me. The program asked: what happens when athletes can no longer participate in their sport, for whatever reason? After all, the athlete role can take on immense personal significance, becoming a pivotal part of a person's identity. When injury, health, other obligations, or retirement in the case of professional athletes, removes the person from the athlete role, it is often experienced as a significant loss - not only of an enjoyed activity, or a social network, but of one's identity.

Many people experience such a loss in youth. A large percentage of kids play sports in high school. Many will experience an injury that sidelines them, temporarily or permanently, and these kids - who are in the process of defining themselves anyway - struggle with who they are without their sport(s). Beyond this number, the majority of high school athletes won't go on to play at the college level, and the majority of college athletes won't go on to play at the professional, national or world levels. At some point in young adulthood, the vast majority have to grieve the loss of their athlete identity, and find a way to define themselves separate from sport. Fortunately, young adulthood is a time for developing our identities, and this loss, while devastating, does not usually push people to the point of suicide - identity is still developing, and therefore, alternate identities are available.

We can only imagine that, for those exceptional few who do go on to more advanced levels, instead of developing an alternate identity - an understanding of who they are separate from sport - the athlete identity crystallizes into their core sense of self. Unfortunately, the human body does not continue to perform at an elite level indefinitely - at some point, every athlete reaches the point where they can no longer be competitive at the same level.

Of course, some will find ways to continue their involvement in sports - they play in recreational leagues, become coaches or commentators. However, I imagine the loss would be more profound the more advanced people go in their athletic careers. For example, a football start like Junior would lose not only a central part of his identity, but also the social roles of teammate, role model, and celebrity, not to mention the income and lifestyle. If you've spent 20 years in the NFL, and college, high school, and perhaps middle school teams before that - if you're in your 40s and have known no other life - what does it feel like to retire from football? An immense void, I suspect. Some are able to redefine themselves, while others are not. Suicide is an extreme response to the latter eventuality.

That raises the question of how loss of identity or role may factor into suicide more generally. We know that older adults are at greater risk for suicide, and loss of role, functioning, and/or identity is likely a key reason. What about other groups? How do you understand identity issues in depression and suicide?

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