Saturday, February 19, 2011

Another Sad Ending

I really hate doing this. Particularly on a Saturday evening when there are more enjoyable things to do. But, unfortunately, I feel obligated to say something whenever this kind of thing happens.

Here’s the story. Friday night the local news media in Chicago reported that Dave Duerson, a former safety for the Chicago Bears who played on the 1985-86 Super Bowl Championship team, was “found dead” at his home in Miami. A man in good physical condition, dead at the age of 50; no signs of foul play; awaiting the results of an autopsy.

Hearing that, I had this uneasy feeling I’d been down this road before; and today, Peggy Kusinski of our local NBC affiliate, WMAQ-TV, confirmed what I’d suspected:

Former Chicago Bears player Dave Duerson died from a gunshot wound to the chest, according to the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner. 

His death has been ruled a suicide.

In a text message to loved ones, Duerson asked that his brain be left for NFL research, emphasizing he wanted the “left side” checked out in particular. 

Chris Nowinski, co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University School of Medicine, received a call from a friend of the Duerson family Thursday night. He made arrangements to have the brain prepped in time for research and sent to Boston University.

It would be maudlin to speculate about his reasons, and in many respects the reasons are irrelevant. It says something about the man’s character that even when he was contemplating the worst thing in the world he thought of helping other football players, who are at a particularly high risk of brain injuries like chronic traumatic encephalopathy, by donating his own brain for scientific research. Beyond that, any more comment on Duerson’s particular case would be irresponsible.

But setting aside the particulars of Duerson’s case, I can’t let the suicide of a prominent figure go without commenting on the subject generally. Because, unfortunately, I’ve been there. I won’t dwell on my personal story here, other than to say that I lost my brother John to suicide in 1991 – a long time ago, and so there’s really no need to talk about the details. Still, having gone through it myself I feel like I have a responsibility to be open about it, mostly because even now, even in 2011, suicide one of the few remaining subjects that’s basically off limits.

And let me tell you something: That doesn’t help.

So (and again, without reference to Duerson’s situation), here are some hard facts about suicide – things that we should be, but generally aren’t, willing to talk about. From the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

In 2007, there were 34,598 reported suicide deaths in the U.S., according to the latest available data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, the suicide rate increased 3 percent from 11.2 suicides per 100,000 population in 2006 to 11.5 in 2007. The rate has fluctuated since 2000, ranging from a low of 10.4 in 2000 to a high of 11.5 in 2007, with a mean rate of 11.0 (see chart below). The 2007 suicide rate is the highest since 1995.

Current rates for every age group between 25 and 84 have increased. The most significant increases occurred in individuals aged 25 to 34 (12.3 in 2006 to 13.0 in 2007), 45 to 54 (17.2 to 17.7), and 55 to 64 (14.5 to 15.5). The rate of 17.7 for 45- to 54-year-olds is the highest for any age group in the country, while the rate for 55- to 64-year-olds showed the greatest increase from the previous year.

Suicide rates for those 45 to 64 have increased significantly since 2000. The current rate for the 45-54 age group (17.7) is the highest since 1977, while the rate for those aged 55 to 64 (15.5) is the highest since 1990.

Which means:

Every 15 minutes someone dies by suicide. It remains the 11th leading cause of death in this country. Though suicide attempts are not reported, it is estimated that close to one million people make a suicide attempt each year.

And, perhaps the most important point is this:

Research has shown that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death, most often unrecognized or untreated depression.

So, I guess if there’s anything you should take away from this story it’s this: Even if you haven’t personally been touched by suicide, it happens so frequently there’s a chance someone you know has been touched by it; and there’s even a chance you will be in the future. And because most suicides stem from treatable illnesses, not talking about it, or pretending it doesn’t happen, or won’t happen to anyone you know, is really a bad idea.

I know it’s an uncomfortable subject to talk about. But guess what. It’s even more uncomfortable to live through. I’ve got about 20 years experience with that.

Meanwhile, whatever lead to Dave Duerson’s suicide, I hope his family – and especially his kids – get through this. I would say, “get through this unscathed” … but I know that’s not possible.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. I love football but every time something like this happens I wonder if by my support of the sport I am not in some way complicit. And, in an unrelated note, I have thought about suicide. I doubt there are very many unemployed who haven't. But I don't dwell. I (try to) move on.

  2. Hey, Rich, I think that’s quite common. When you consider that the statistics have gone up over the past few years, it’s not much of a leap to think the financial crisis has something to do with it. If you’re familiar with John Irving: “Just keep passing the open window.”