Millions of teens suffer concussions as experts link head trauma to suicide risk
Rigorous researchers avoid leaping to unfounded conclusions, but it’s hard not to look at two separate studies on areas of high current interest and just go “Hmmm ….”
In the first work, experts from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed available reports and surveys to find that 15.1 percent of American high school students or 2.5 million or so “reported having at least one of these concussions” in the most recent year, while 6 percent reported two or more concussions.
Concussion prevalence was significantly higher among male students than among female students and among students who played on a sports team than among students who did not. Among all sex, grade, and racial-ethnic subgroups, the odds of reporting a concussion increased significantly with the number of sports teams on which students played. These findings underscore the need to 1) foster a culture of safety in which concussion prevention and management is explicitly addressed; 2) expand efforts to educate students, parents, coaches, and health care providers regarding the risk for concussion; and 3) identify programs, policies, and practices that prevent concussions.
The public health investigators, cautioning about how head trauma among teens needs more research to ensure, as it is wont to be, that it is neither over- nor under-reported.
Besides growing concern, however, about concussions’ long-term damage with conditions like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) — a degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma — Parkinson’s, and possibly ALS or Lou Gehrig’s, other researchers also have raised worries about heightened suicide risks due to head injuries.
The Washington Post reported that Danish researchers have suggested that rising, crisis-levels of suicides may have some links to head trauma, writing:
Researchers found that of the nearly 7.5 million people who make up the population of Denmark, more than 34,500 deaths between 1980 and 2014 were by suicide. Approximately 10 percent of those who took their own lives had also suffered a medically documented traumatic brain injury (TBI). … ‘Individuals with mild TBI, with concussion, had an elevated suicide risk by 81 percent,’ said Trine Madsen of the Danish Research Institute of Suicide Prevention, one of the authors of the study. ‘But individuals with severe TBI had a higher suicide risk that was more than double’ the risk of someone with no TBI.
The Danes, the newspaper said, pointed in their study, published in the medical journal JAMA, to three factors salient to higher suicide risk in their studied individuals: The severity of their brain injury, whether they suffered a first incidence in young adulthood, and if they had been discharged from a hospital for a TBI in the previous six months.
To be clear, the CDC and Danish research occurred with records and statistical analysis, not with the most rigorous study method of a clinical trial. That means their findings were observational and associations — there’s not an established, direct, and scientifically proven link between traumatic brain injury and suicide, nor that increasing concussions are contributing to the record number of suicides occurring in the U.S.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also the havoc that can be inflicted on them by injuries to the spine and brain. As our annual obsession ramps up with competitive sports of all kinds but especially football, young players, their parents, coaches, and schools are struggling with tough choices about past times that are supposed to be fun but increasingly are turning out to pose major, sustained health risks — specifically with damages tied to blows to the head. We’ve also come through some tough months of several widely publicized self-inflicted deaths of influential and beloved personalities, incidents that have led us all to a lot of soul-searching about our nation’s record numbers of suicides.
We’ve clearly got a lot of work ahead of us, both to protect our young and some of our best, brightest, and most able from head trauma and the many causes that may be leading them to kill themselves.