Lee Kaplan, left, chief of the UHealth Sports Medicine Division and associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, and UM neurologist Kester Nedd, an expert in the area of traumatic brain injury, stand in front of the ProCap, a protective padding that was placed on the top of the helmet worn by former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso to help prevent concussions.
Even before he jumped out of a car that was moving at 70 miles per hour, former Detroit Lions quarterback Eric Hipple had suffered from bouts of depression, experiencing days as a student-athlete at Utah State University when he refused to get out of bed.
But there had always been a terrible stigma associated with his illness, and Hipple never discussed it.
When his 15-year-old son, Jeff, committed suicide, however, that all changed. Ever since that day, Hipple has devoted his life to raising awareness about depressive illnesses, working tirelessly as a spokesperson at community-based events throughout the United States and authoring the book Real Men Do Cry.
“It took education and reaching out to understand what was going on,” said Hipple.
His comments were part of a town hall forum and panel discussion held on the University of Miami campus on December 6 that addressed the mental health challenges faced not only by athletes but also by everyday people from all walks of life.
“The brain is important, but we tend to separate it from the rest of the body. That has to change,” said David Satcher, U.S. surgeon general from 1998 to 2001 and now director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and the Center of Excellence on Health Disparities at Morehouse School of Medicine, which partnered with the National Football League in presenting the forum, dubbed NFL Community Huddle: Taking a Goal Line Stand for Your Mind and Body.
With the forums, Satcher, who released the first Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health, hopes to remove much of the stigma connected with mental disorders. “We’ve come a long way, but more needs to be done,” he said, proposing that mental disorders be treated with the same quality of care as other medical conditions.
Noting that one in five Americans is diagnosed with a mental disorder each year, Satcher called for prevention and the reduction of risk factors that cause the condition and said the nation must also do more to ensure children have a healthy start in life.
He also addressed the professional athlete, saying that “a pro athlete retiring at 35 goes through a dramatic transformation in life” and that more measures must be undertaken to help all people adjust to transitional phases, “whether it’s coming back from the battlefield or leaving a job.”
Also on the panel: Sylvia Mackey, wife of former NFL player John Mackey, who was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia in 2001, a medical diagnosis she was relieved to hear because it helped explain much of her spouse’s peculiar behavior.
“I knew I had a new challenge I had to confront,” Sylvia Mackey said. She wrote a letter to then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, telling him about the problems faced by many ex-NFL players and urging him to take action. The result was The 88 Plan, which reimburses some medical expenses of former players suffering from dementia. It is named for the jersey number her husband wore.
Attendees also heard from WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw, who in 2004 disclosed that she was suffering from clinical depression; and former Buffalo Bills safety Mark Kelso, who was known for wearing the ProCap, a protective padding that was placed on the top of the football helmet to help prevent concussions. The headgear looked peculiar, and Kelso said he often drew the ribbing of teammates. But he credits the ProCap for extending his NFL career, which had often been plagued by concussions. He called for the greater use of technology to improve helmet safety.
Preventing head trauma that may cause mental disorders, as well as reducing the stigma associated with them, will also hinge on changing the behavior of players, said former Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett, who attended the forum as an audience member. When he was an active player in the NFL, Bennett said he encountered many players who were concussed but didn’t want to reveal their injury out of fear of losing their job to a backup player. The sentiment among players was that “you can’t make the club in the tub,” Bennett said. Players, he said, should admit to injury, and the league must give them time to heal properly.
Lee Kaplan, chief of the UHealth Sports Medicine Division and an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, called for more education, especially in high schools, to alert athletes of the dangers of concussion, while UM neurologist Kester Nedd said traumatic brain injury must also be studied from the perspective of other mechanisms. “Most of the information we have,” said Nedd, “comes from data provided by the military.”