Is There a Link Between NFL Head Trauma and Bipolar Disorder?

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There is no question that National Football League players have always been subject to head injuries in the violent game in which they participate. To what extent these injuries impact overall behavior of the players continues to be fodder for study and argument.

What about bipolar disorders? Can continued massive blows to the head result in an individual’s being diagnosed with bipolar disorder? Is there a link between head trauma in NFL players and bipolar disorder?

When former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was found dead in his prison cell, a victim of suicide on April 19, 2017, the tragedy promptly reopened discussion on the possibility of there being a link between NFL head trauma and bipolar disorder.

Hernandez had been a champion on a championship NFL team, but his aggressive behavior was often so uncontrollable that it led him to problems with crime and law enforcement and ultimately to prison.

There have been other incidents of former NFL players taking their own lives:

  • Former linebacker Junior Seau of the San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons defensive safety Ray Easterling both committed suicide in 2012.
  • Dave Duerson shot himself in 2011. Duerson played safety for the Chicago Bears.
  • Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs committed suicide at the team’s training facility. This happened shortly after Belcher had killed his girlfriend.

Notable Modern NFL Players Deal With Mental Illness

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Mental illness of some nature has afflicted many modern NFL players, including Terry Bradshaw,Tim Tebow, Jamaal Charles, Arian Foster and Charles Haley. Fortunately, they became aware of their problems with mental health and sought and received help. Social media has contributed to the issue. Players are constantly being bombarded by fans with pressure to perform for their NFL team and as ridiculous as it sounds, their fantasy football team. Arian Foster in particular regularly interacted and joked with fantasy football fans on Twitter. However, towards the end, the relationship took a toll. There were a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker Haley has five Super Bowl rings. He now shares with the world his battles with mental health. Haley is bipolar. He says he was diagnosed with the condition three years after his retirement.

“I should have been diagnosed much sooner,” Haley says, “but I ignored many earlier signs of the illness.”

Haley recalls he always had a feeling that he was about to be attacked by someone. “I responded by being the first to attack,” he says.

His aggressive behavior cost Haley his job with the San Francisco 49ers. “I became a person no one could handle.”

One scholarly study conducted out of UCLA by professors M. T. Wright and J. L. Cummings and colleagues conclude that there is a relation between traumatic brain injuries and bipolar disorders. The findings by the UCLA team were published online on January. 7, 2008.

Wright and Cummings looked into other case studies, all of which had suggested that complex behavior activity resembling bipolar disorders can follow traumatic injury to the brain.

The researchers studied a particular patient who suffered from bouts with depression and episodes of manic disorder after sustaining injuries to the head. They also reviewed up-to-date papers on “post-traumatic bipolar syndromes.”

Bipolar issues can surface soon after a head injury or can appear after a time lag of months or years, Wright and Cummings write. Their study said that patients suffering with manic disorder after receiving head injuries, often display cranky and assertive behavior. They also saw excessive vulnerability to mood disorders and even episodes of epilepsy in patients.

Wright and Cummings say patients with bipolar disorder can be treated in effect with medication or “electroconvulsive” medical assistance.

Danish Psychiatrists Express Doubt in Study of Head Injuries

In a study made by a panel of Danish psychiatrists, doubt was expressed concerning other findings that say head injuries result in bipolar disorder. The panel, directed by P. B. Mortensen, published an article in the Journal of Affective Disorders titled “Head Injury As a Risk Factor for Bipolar Affective Disorder. “

The article, dated September 2003, stresses that not a lot is known about head injuries having anything to do with the oncoming of bipolar disorders. The Danish medical team found injury to their patients and any link to bipolar disorder occurred only in a small number of cases.

Professional football players, like many of the general public, do have their battle with depression. David Weber and Grant L. Iverson write of depression and bipolar disorders in their online article titled “Suicide in Professional American Football Players in the past 95 years.”

The article was published online on October 24, 2016. Weber and Iverson say most of the deaths were related to depression brought on by factors such as loss of steady income, divorce, failed businesses and medical issues and problems with substance abuse.

Results of their study noted that most of the suicides have occurred in the past 15 years, nearly 60 percent.

Weber and Iverson concluded the depression and suicide are diverse, and are caused by a multiplicity of factors, all of which are treatable. They believe a better quality of life can be provided at-risk retired athletes through mental health treatment.

Depression is an illness that can attack just about any player, even the injury-free player. It’s a condition that has haunted many of those NFL stars whose career is on the downside and slowly coming to an end.

Doctors contend that most people who live with bipolar disorder are diagnosed early in life. Symptoms can be totally different from one individual to another. In some people, episodes occur daily, while in others it can happen less frequently.

Bipolar disorder may or may not be prevalent among NFL players, past and present, but it remains open to discussion.

Johnny Manziel Announces He Has Been Diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder

Johnny Manziel, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Texas A&M, has opened up a new discussion on the bipolar issue. Manziel’s career in pro football never bloomed because of personal problems with alcohol,

Manziel announced recently that he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was interviewed over national television and he has brought on more debate: Could his being bipolar be the results of his partying lifestyle or to the many times he was hit by tacklers?

Johnny Manziel is not alone.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates 4.4 percent of adults in the U. S. experience bipolar disorder at some point in their lives, with cases in men a little higher than in women,

Dr. Michael Thase, professor of psychiatry and director of the Mood and Anxiety Program at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, claims people with bipolar affective disorder can be anywhere on a scope when it comes to mania and depression symptoms

Thase told Men’s Health magazine that 90 percent of bipolar suffers have time intervals of abnormal elation and periods of depression.

As for Manziel and his problems with drinking, Dr. Thase says it is quite common for people with bipolar disorder to have alcohol and drug problems. People with bipolar disorder are twice as likely as the general public to have substance abuse issues, Thase says.

“That's what I thought would make me happy and free me from depression,” Manziel said. But he said the courage he got from alcohol would soon disappear.

"You are by yourself, looking up at the ceiling, in depression, thinking about all the mistakes you made in your life,” Manzeil said.

The former first round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns says he has finally reached out for support and claims his mental health is now the No. 1 priority in his life.

His move to seek help is something most men don’t do right away, says Dr. Thase. “Compared to women, men usually wait until their condition becomes more serious,” Thase says. “Even once they find help, they are more likely to discontinue therapy and medication, the remedy for bipolar disorder.”

Things Are Now Looking Better for the Former Heisman Winner

Life seems to be getting better for Manziel. He and model Bre Tiesi are engaged and he’s started his own designer clothing line. He is sober and working out again, and hoping he will one day play football again.

Another name worth mentioning in regard to bipolar disorder is former Detroit Lions wide receiver Titus Young. Young has been denied parole in California. The 28-year-old athlete who has been serving a four-year sentence since for charges related to a fight.

Young played 26 games for the Lions in 2011 and 2012. He was let go by the Rams in 2013. Young and his family have contended that he is bipolar and hears voices, while doctors have diagnosed him with suffering from the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

(CTE) has been identified as a progressive degenerative disease of the brain. Its victims are individuals with a history of repetitive brain injury, most often athletes.

According to ESPN, the deputy commissioner who studied the Titus Young’s case wrote in his brief that Young continues to pose a risk of violence to the community. The commissioner's decision noted that there was a greater need for sustained rehabilitative programming tailored to Young's history of violent behavior.

"There is a school of thought that the chemical changes in the brain that lead to bipolar issues are driven by environmental factors including mental stress, abuse, and alcohol abuse,” the report said

When a player continues to be banged on the head, he can become a victim of CTE. It’s a condition that brings changes to a person’s personality. Changes like violent behavior, addiction, depression.

It is believed that Aaron Hernandez long suffered from CTE.

The NFL has been overwhelmed by CTE in recent years. When the league said there was no link between concussions and CTE, it lost a huge lawsuit filed by more than 5,000 former players. The lawsuit found the NFL guilty of covering up the perils of concussions and the head injuries that are repeatedly suffered by players.

There continues to be studies that focus on brain damage. Football, most certainly at the professional level, is a violent sport and players are going to sustain injuries, especially injuries to the head.

“It just comes with the territory,” former Green Bay Packer running back Jim Taylor once said.

One group of researchers comes up with different conclusion

Most of the studies regarding head injuries in NFL players do imply there are incidents of brain injury. Researchers from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, however, came up with a different conclusion.

They made a study of 45 retired NFL players, spanning ages of 30 to 60. They found that there were brain wounds and cognitive damages in some of the players, but the majority of the individuals in their study had no signs of chronic brain damage to the degree that has been noted in previous studies.

Future investigations with larger samples including various types of detailed histories and multimodal neurobehavioral and neuroimaging studies of this population are needed, the study said.