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Macho Men Get Depressed, Too

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Thirty years ago, near the beginning of football season, Jim Tyrer, a former star lineman with the Kansas City Chiefs, shot and killed his wife before turning a gun on himself and committing suicide at the age of 41.

Like many former athletes, Tyrer had had trouble finding a purpose in life following his years as a physical man, a warrior of the gridiron. He had encountered little success in the business world. What was not discussed so much was the possibility that he had been suffering from depression, which may have led to feelings of worthlessness.

Times have changed and for the better.

For some time now, it has been known that football players live, on average, shorter lives than the rest of us. But it has only been in recent years that the football community has truly acknowledged the long-term health implications of helmet-to-helmet collisions, which can result in paralysis, concussions, cognitive problems and mental-health issues.

In the past week or so, former Chicago Bears QB Jim McMahon indicated that he has experienced memory loss. In 2002, Mike Webster, the former Steelers center, who grappled with depression as well as dementia, died at the age of 50 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Numerous others have endured acute trauma from getting hit in the helmet, trauma that may disrupt the flow of neurotransmitters in the brain, which could be the biggest reason why some former players suffer from clinical depression.

Fortunately, in the past decade the NFL has benefited from the valor and honesty of Terry Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame quarterback with the Pittsburgh Steelers, who has spoken publicly about his battles with what Winston Churchill, the wartime prime minister of England, once called his Black Dog.

No one would ever question the toughness or manhood of any of these men.

Bradshaw, whose career overlapped with those of Tyrer and Webster, has served as a spokesperson for Paxil, an anti-depressant, which he has taken.

Still, men often feel, as Bradshaw once put it, that they are a "tremendous failure" or "the biggest wuss there is" if they suffer from mental illness.

It is no wonder that they might feel that way when President Obama, adhering to an unwritten rule that allegedly began in the Clinton years, still reportedly won't send condolence letters to the families of U.S. troops who commit suicide.

Many of those troops, who have been committing suicide at record levels in recent years, were battling major depression and PTSD among other disorders.

I know a little something about depression and suicide. My grandfather took his life within a few days of my birthday. That is probably why I was named after him in Hebrew, even though he died many years before I was born.

I cannot remember a time when I wasn't depressed. Fortunately, I have learned how to keep my depression in check. Good therapy, medication (Zoloft and Abilify), and much love and nurture from my wife and friends have all been a boon to me. But I have also had a determination to survive, perhaps even a kind of toughness, though that toughness does not resemble combat in the trenches or on the football field.

Despite two psychotic breaks and hospitalizations, a time when I was deeply suicidal, I have never actually given up.

The suicidal person cannot imagine that he will ever be able to take care of himself again. That was how I felt in 1997 when I was recuperating from my first psychotic episode.

What the suicidal person needs to know is that when you accomplish enough little things on a daily basis such as driving yourself to a day hospital, putting together a résumé, going for a walk with a friend, making yourself lunch and participating in group therapy -- all of which I did in 1997 -- you begin to develop a level of competence and ultimately confidence in yourself.

Most of all, the suicidal person needs to reach out to others, to interact with the world. Before you know it, you are ready to apply for a new job, see your friends and start your new life.

I once described deep depression as being similar to low tide at twilight, where your brain is like the shore and it is receiving very little serotonin, just as the sand is getting fewer and fewer ripples of water and rays of light.

Yet it is not midnight. There is still some light, some fluid percolating in your brain and some hope that you can survive.

I would like pro athletes, soldiers and other men to realize that there is no shame in having clinical depression; the only shame is in hiding from it so much that you end up killing yourself.

Suicide does not have to happen. We are creatures of free will, able to change our course in life. But when suicide does occur, it should be acknowledged with a condolence letter, not buried in the shadows.

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