With the recent suicide of Junior Seau from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, there is once again widespread speculation that the death was caused by possible chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a broad term used to refer to repetitive, often subclinical (e.g., asymptomatic), injury to the brain from a variety of contact sports and other causes. Whether or not Seau had this condition (his brain was just donated for scientific study to determine this), it is premature to speculate that he killed himself because of the condition.
Personally, I have never bought into the supposed link between CTE and suicide, as if people are mindlessly controlled to take their lives due to a distant history of concussions that may never have never been documented or known about. Are we to believe that Junior Seau seemed fine and jovial the week prior to his death and that CTE (which is a chronic condition) suddenly took control of his mind and caused him to shoot himself in the chest? That makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Many of these player's had ample non-neurological explanations (e.g., business failings, federal indictments, depression about lack of post-career football success) for why they would commit suicide. I explain this more in an upcoming chapter on CTE that I wrote with Dr. Shane Bush:
Carone, D., Bush, S. (2012, in press). Dementia pugilistica and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In R. Dean & C. Noggle (Eds.), Cortical Dementias. New York: Springer.
In Seau’s case, we do not yet know what troubles he may have been experiencing in his life that led him to commit suicide and it is unclear if we will ever know since he did not leave a suicide note. But, the fact is that people kill themselves or try to kill themselves every day, even if they are perceived by others as successful in life. Many people put on a social mask to hide their inner distress from others and are unaware of the emotional distress that someone else may be experiencing. It is known Seau was divorced and was arrested in 2010 for history of domestic violence towards his ex-girlfriend. Hours later, he survived a 100-foot fall down a cliff in his SUV after he claimed he fell asleep. Perhaps, but it is also possible that this was an earlier suicide attempt in reaction to the events from hours earlier. The bottom line is that it is unclear if there was any family matters that could have contributed to his recent actions.
For those who speculate that CTE caused Seau to commit suicide, it is important to note that suicide is an act that is completed or attempted by many professional and college athletes, including outside the NFL such as college basketball, professional basketball, college baseball, professional baseball, professional golf, and professional tennis players. Do all these athletes have CTE too? Are scientists hunting down their families to have them donate their brains for analysis? Not to my knowledge. Here is just a partial listing of many athletes who have killed themselves even if they didn't actually have a history of concussions or repetitive head trauma.
1. Thomas Emma (Duke basketball player)
2. Jim Dinwiddie (Kentucky basketball player)
3. Mel Turpin (Kentucky basketball player)
4. Troy Raymond (NBA and college basketball player):
5. Nine other basketball players:
6. Erica Blasberg (professional golfer)
7. Mike Flanagan (MLB player)
8. Hideki Irabu (MLB player)
9. Stephan Gant (top MLB prospect)
10. Jennifer Capriati (professional tennis player, attempted suicide)
Also see the entries entitled, Junior Seau did NOT suffer 1500 concussions and Does Second Impact Syndrome Exist?