Special Report: Concussions and Suicide

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GRAND JUNCTION, Colo (KKCO) Losing consciousness after a blow to the head isn't new to competitive sports, but what we know about them is changing, and creating concern for parents with young athletes on the field. We investigated the connection between concussions and suicide, a link that may be stronger than you expected. For decades, athletes got knocked out, were given a little salt, and got back in the game; but now many of those athletes are in a game they can't win. Shocking new studies have confirmed that several concussions over time can have devastating affects on a person's health, and even lead to suicide.

"You get a lot of butterflies each time, like right before you step on the field, mostly playoffs, or just the way you tackle," said Nathan Nielson, a local youth football player. "I just try to go 100% as hard as I can, every time; and then like, even if I do get hurt, I've got after my game, the whole week to get rested," added Shawn Garcia, another local youth football player.

Thousands of youth football players dreams of making it big, playing in the NFL. "As you start getting older you realize that it's more of a big, big dream, and a wish than a reality," said Andrew Melendrez, a former Colorado Mesa University football player. They know one hit could ruin their career. "You only have one brain, and you only have one life, why risk that in a game to have fun," asked Melendrez, a former wide receiver.

Parents know their kids are at risk every time they step on the playing field. "It's terrifying when you see them take that shot, you just have to trust in the equipment, that they've trained to tackle," said Wade Houck, a local youth football coach and parent. After a brutal hit, a parent's heart sinks when after the impact, they don't get right back up. "It's tough to see as a parent, seeing your kid get hit, the bigger they get, the harder the hits get, so you pay attention to it," said David Scoggins, a local youth football parent.

Andrew Melendrez is one of those players who didn't get back up. "It was at practice; I actually just got kneed in the head; it was pretty much just a freak accident; but I don't have any recollection of the actual incident," said Melendrez. Doctors had already confirmed that Melendrez had two concussions; after three, he wouldn't have been allowed to play at CMU anymore. He made the heartbreaking decision to quit the game he loved. "After thinking a couple months and talking to coach, family members, different doctors; I just decided it's not worth it; it's just a matter of time before I get the next one, it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when," said Melendrez.

The numbers are shocking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 240,000 young players suffer concussions every year. "We don't many times recognize that they've suffered a concussion; it's quite obvious that they've had lost of consciousness on the field, but many patients are stunned, and it's not recognized that they've suffered a concussion," said Brian Witwer, MD, a neurosurgeon at St. Mary's Hospital.

A kid's ability to heal is usually better than an adults, but concussions, are different. "After you've been concussed you can't really control how you're feeling and your emotion," said Melendrez. Young athletes who suffer concussions can have problems in the classroom. "You can't focus, you can't concentrate, you forget; your short-term memory, different homework assignments, you forget," explained Melendrez.

More attention is being paid to concussions in youth sports because research shows adolescent's brains aren't able to heal from concussions as fast as adults. "A lot of studies have shown that the adolescent brains, they heal much slower; so our protocol may be slightly different than a middle school or high school kid; because their brains are still developing, and their brains take longer to heal than maybe a college kid," said Josh Fullmer, a CMU athletic trainer.

Youth leagues also don't have the resources college or NFL players have, but local youth area leagues are vigilant about ensuring equipment is up to the highest standards, referees and coaches are trained to recognize concussions, and players are trained to tackle properly. "Any head injury, any back injury is serious. We always air to the side of caution: if we have any question, we call an ambulance. I have the emt's there," said Jim Bratcher, President of Mesa County Youth Football.

Colorado state law now protects youth players, who must get a doctor's approval before returning to the field. "If a kid receives a head injury, we must get a written clearance from a physician; once we get written clearance from a physician, we do a return to play program," added Paul Cain, School District 51 Athletic Director. That's a program where District 51 athletes will rehabilitate for a minimum of 5 days before returning to play, but once you reach the NFL level, the hits get bigger, and so do the problems.

"Even some of the football players that never had a documented loss of consciousness, they're still, because of all those multiple blows to the head, are having problems," said Tom Ziemann, MSW, LCSW, Polytrauma case manager at the Grand Junction VA. Problems that can tear their family apart. "Football players, hockey players, just aren't themselves; they're depressed, they aren't able to manage a relationship, they have increased instances of suicide and depression," said Brian Witwer, MD, the St. Mary's neurosurgeon.

According to a study in the Journal of Sports Exercise and Psychology, out of 1,800 former NFL players surveyed, 61 percent had sustained at least one concussion during their career. "When you have one, you're more at risk to have a second, and when you're at risk of having a second, you're more at risk of having a third," said Ziemann, the Polytrauma case manager at the Grand Junction VA.

Studies show many concussions over time could even lead to symptoms, that lead to suicide. "I think it's more the result of the concussion that can lead to depression, which can then lead to suicide; or the injury can lead to a change in their functioning, and because of a change in their functioning, eventually they become depressed, and potentially suicidal," said Dr. David Hildebrandt, Ph.D, supervisory psychologist at the Grand Junction Vet Center.

A University of Washington study surveyed 600 males who suffered a traumatic brain injury. "Half of them in the year after their injury, suffered a major depressive disorder; and given these patients that suffered major depressive disorders, they're at significant risk, as high as 19 percent, of having a suicidal thought or attempt," said Brian Witwer, MD, the St. Mary's neurosurgeon.

NFL legends have taken their lives, including Dave Duerson, Ray Easterling, and most recently Junior Seau. Dozens of concussion related lawsuits have been filed by former NFL players, but the league insists the allegations are without merit. There haven't been any reports of local athletes who suffered concussions committing suicide in our area; but after just one, athletes and their parents could have a difficult decision to make. "My coach, he sat me down, pretty much said you know if you were my son, I'd be telling you the same thing, you know, really think about this," said Melendrez, the former CMU football player.

Every parent and player dreads thinking about an injury that will end their playing career. "Everyone thinks that their son or daughter is going to be a professional athlete, unfortunately, that's not the case, and sports that put your child at risk of hitting their head are sports that you need to be really cautious about. Every parent really wants their kid to excel at everything they do, and they've spent a lot of time; years many times, in getting their child to a certain proficiency in a sport; and the idea of them suddenly not being able to participate in a sport is traumatic, both for the parent and the child," said Brian Witwer, MD, the St. Mary's neurosurgeon.

And if an athlete gets one concussion, their career isn't over, but they must be careful, and think about how sports injuries could affect their life later on. "If they can't participate in relationships because of a head injury, that is a significant long-term effect, and if they do not have the ability to be a professional athlete, or a college athlete, think twice if this is the right sport for them," cautioned Witwer.

And while Melendrez misses the game, he knows all players leave the field eventually; but their injuries can last forever; and for him, not playing the game will help him pursue another dream, becoming a firefighter and paramedic.

District 51 offers athletes free concussion screenings. Experts also recommend seeing a therapist to allow another professional to monitor any symptoms than may manifest themselves, and suggest possible treatment. Regular visits with a doctor and therapist should continue for a minimum of one year if there aren't any symptoms.

For information about concussions, how to treat them and prevent them, visit the related links section below.

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