What Junior Seau’s Suicide Can Teach Us About Middle-Aged Men

With suicide rates increasing for middle-aged men and women, Hugo Schwyzer says it’s not a stretch to suggest that loneliness may have played as great a role in Junior Seau’s suicide as traumatic brain injury.

Last week’s tragic suicide of NFL great Junior Seau has re-opened the debate about the long-term impact of traumatic brain injuries on athletes in contact sports. Though the complete autopsy results have yet to be released, there’s considerable speculation that the report will reveal Seau had brain abnormalities consistent with those sustained by others who played violent sports like football or boxing for years. 

This renewed debate over contact sports and traumatic brain injuries is important. But it risks distracting us from focusing in on another factor in Seau’s suicide, one for which we need no autopsy report. The former Charger, Dolphin, and Patriot star killed himself at 43—right on the cusp of the chronological suicide zone. Though our cultural stereotypes about suicide often lead us to imagine that teenagers are at the greatest risk, middle-aged men are far more likely to die by their own hands than their adolescent children.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, since the mid-1990s, the bullying epidemic notwithstanding, teen suicide rates have been headed in the same happy direction as teen birth rates: down. At the same time, suicide rates for middle-aged men and women have been rising dramatically, with white males ages 45 to 54 at the highest statistical risk. Though the AFSP reports that women of all ages attempt to kill themselves more often than do men, men are far more likely to do so successfully—79% of all suicides in America in 2009 were by men. Much of that discrepancy is explained by favored methods—men, like Seau, tend to choose guns, while women are much more likely to attempt to overdose on prescription pills.

For a 2010 article on middle-aged suicide at the Good Men Project, Dan Fields interviewed experts about the causes of this troubling rise in suicide rates for men in their 40s and 50s. One, Sally Spencer-Thomas, whose Working Minds program promotes suicide prevention in the workplace, pointed out that changing gender roles might play a key part in driving suicide rates. As more women become “family breadwinners,” Spencer-Thomas noted that “more men are asking themselves, ‘Am I a provider or not? Am I a leader or not?’ Their sense of purpose may become unclear.”

The sudden loss of existential clarity is perhaps particularly acute for men who’ve lost jobs thanks to the recession, or—like Seau—been forced into the early retirement that is the destiny of all professional athletes. But it’s not just the recently unemployed who are at great risk of suicide. It’s those men who spent the first 30 years after hitting puberty living with the reassuring sense that the world was filled with possibility; as my friend Daniel puts it, “Until I was 40, I figured I had all the time in the world to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with my life. Then 40 came and I suddenly realized I didn’t have forever.”

My late grandfather was fond of saying that “30 is when a young man stops being promising.” Born in 1907, he grew up in an era when most men were married with at least two children by the time they hit that milestone. My grandfather’s adage might need a little recalibrating; if 40 is the new 30, as we’re constantly reminded, than 40 is now the “put up or shut up” line of demarcation. Though we hear occasional stories of men who’ve reinvented themselves in middle-age, we live in a culture where the brightest stars of sports, music, and business all seem to have achieved renown long before 40. For men whose expectations have not panned out as they hoped by that age, the sense that opportunity has passed them by can be devastating. 

In a sense, middle-aged men are victims of their own privilege. Women are forced, cruelly, to come to terms with the reality of aging much earlier in life. Whether the biological clock is real or not, women are constantly reminded by the media and by their families that they have one ticking inside of them. Men and women are fed opposite messages: Women are told that they have “less time” than they actually have, while men are often misled into believing that they have all the time in the world. As a result, midlife’s physical and emotional changes may come as a ruder shock to men than they do to their wives and sisters. 

Middle-aged men are also particularly unlikely, as Fields wrote for GMP, to have strong supportive networks. For many straight, married men, their wives are often their only close friends. The culturally-driven inability to connect emotionally with other men and the false assumption that platonic friendships with women invariably threaten a marriage leave many men isolated. This is a particularly acute problem for professional athletes who have been members of closely-knit teams since boyhood. Much of the coverage of Seau’s death has focused on the violent collisions on the football field he’d endured since his childhood days in Pee Wee football. Whatever role those brutal hits played in his death, it’s worth considering an additional factor: loneliness. Seau retired from the Patriots a few months after turning 40; it marked the first time since he was 10 that he wasn’t on a team. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the sudden loss of camaraderie for the divorced Seau may have played as great a role in his despair as traumatic brain injury.

In the aftermath of this particular tragedy, it’s worth assessing the particular risk that contact sports pose to the brain. But it would be wrong to assume that Junior Seau was only at high risk for depression because he played football for so many years. The arrival of middle age marks a transition into emotional vulnerability for a great many men, the vast majority of whom were never professional athletes. We need to challenge our fathers, husbands, boyfriends, and brothers to find the vocabulary for what they’re feeling. We need to be willing to see and acknowledge the fragility of men who are expert at pretending to be impervious to doubt, despair, and loneliness. Regardless of what needs to change about professional football, that’s the lesson we should all be taking from the Seau tragedy.

For more, please check out the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

Photo credit Dave Sizer/Flickr

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