What can the NFL do to help prevent suicide?

Denver Broncos player’s death put suicide prevention in the spotlight

Posted Sep 29, 2010

Following the suicide death last week of Denver Broncos wide receiver Kenny McKinley, professionals in both the sports and suicide prevention worlds have been asking: what can the NFL do to help prevent suicide?

Dr. Leah Lagos has an answer. A sports psychologist who has worked with NFL draft prospects as well as NBA players, she was interviewed by communications strategist (and her husband) TJ Walker about why the NFL can't afford to drop the ball on communication.

Dr. Lagos suggests that the NFL should "enhance the communication to enhance the care" by creating a systematic procedure that keeps all involved with a team - players, athletic trainers, team doctors, and coaches - accountable to each other when it comes to reporting on a player's mental health.

Several people who interacted with McKinley in the weeks before his suicide said that he had talked about wanting to end his life. While suicide is not predictable, it is preventable. Talking about suicide is a warning sign that should always lead to action.

Dr. Lagos isn't suggesting that players themselves should have to call 911 or a mental health professional to report a fellow player's suicidality, but that there should be a system in place that indicates who should be told, and what action that person should take.

In addition to the warning sign of talking about suicide, McKinley had other risk factors. Having suffered an injury that led to a surgery which essentially ended his playing season, McKinley was being treated for depression. A professional athlete's whole identity can be wrapped up in his or her career. When careers are threatened, identity, purpose, self-esteem, and sense of self are all threatened, too.

Creating ways for players to check in with each other and with the others who are part of a team organization, or as Dr. Lagos said, enhancing communication to enhance care, will be critical not just for the Broncos in the weeks following McKinley's death, but for other team organizations throughout each season.

This idea was echoed by Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard, in a Reuters article:

"The thing we have to be able to do is reach out to one another on the team and continue to just talk through our problems. It's the same thing with people in everyday life. You've got to talk to somebody in your life to help you work out those problems."

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved