This week, David is joined by Amy Ellis Nutt of The Washington Post to discuss her reporting on rising suicide rates across the country, particularly those of athletes. Author and game fixing expert Brian Tuohy also speaks with David about newly-legalized sports betting, and some potentially unintended consequences it may have as it becomes more widely available across the country.
Amy Ellis Nutt on rising suicide rates, links between athlete injuries and mental disorders (36:20)
Amy Ellis Nutt covers neuroscience and mental health for The Washington Post. In the aftermath of recent high-profile deaths by suicide, including Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, Nutt joins David for a timely and important discussion. Topics include Nutt’s reporting on rising national suicide rates, the significance of mental illness as a factor, and how athletes can be uniquely vulnerable to both.
A growing national crisis
In her most recent article, Nutt reports on details from a new CDC report revealing that suicide rates in the U.S. increased between 1999 and 2016. This was true in all but one state, held for variables including age, gender, race and ethnicity.
In 2016, the number of reported suicides in the U.S. more than doubled the number of homicides, Nutt writes.
Why is America continuing to see a troubling upswing in suicide rates? According to Nutt, a combination of factors are at play – with undiagnosed mental illness being a significant one.
Nutt says there are sadly many people who tragically take their own lives, with their undiagnosed mental disorder(s) only being discovered after it is too late.
“When you go back and do a psychological autopsy on these people, you discover they have all the signs of mental illness, but they haven’t been seen,” she says.
This is often due to Americans not having access to proper care and/or not being able to afford treatment, Nutt says, which by themselves have a lot to do with driving numbers of suicides up.
“Half the counties in the United States do not have a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, which is really stunning,” Nutt says.
Add to this a prominent social stigma surrounding mental illness, and it becomes apparent why so many Americans do not receive the treatment they may desperately need – whether they know they need it or not.
Why athletes are especially vulnerable
Nutt, speaking to her experience as a former sports reporter, says that athletes tend to have a harder time dealing with issues of mental and emotional health in general.
Often, this can largely be attributed to the significant amount of pressure and scrutiny professional athletes are expected to shoulder gracefully – while continuing to perform at a top level and maintain a good public image simultaneously.
It’s easy for us to think of pro athletes as being pampered because of their lifestyle, Nutt says, but in reality we might be failing to recognize classic signs of mental illness.
She talks about the story of former NBA player Luther Wright, who had a promising but ultimately short stint in professional basketball. His career was cut short after less than a year for reasons including a struggle with mental illness.
Nutt recalls what Wright said during a revealing interview in 2015, in which he spoke about the pressures of being a pro athlete: “He said as an athlete, you're desperate to provide for your family. And especially when you finally reach that professional level, you just might not feel you have a luxury to divulge that you're having a mental health issue,” Nutt says.
“If you're even able to recognize it yourself, it's not something you want to talk about” because of the social stigma and unwanted public attention, she adds.
On top of that: “Athletes are a special breed, they’re perfectionists. Everything about the life of an athlete is measurable…so the standards by which athletes measure themselves are very exacting,” Nutt says.
In this way, it becomes all-too easy for athletes to feel like they are failing if they don't meet certain benchmarks or measure up in a particular way. This perfectionism can lead to athletes playing down or hiding parts of their life they deem damaging to their career, including injuries.
The links between athlete injuries and mental health
David brings up the death of NFL hall of famer Junior Seau, who took his own life in 2012. Seau confided in those close to him about the many concussions he had suffered, but went to lengths to hide them from the public during his 20-year career. Not once was he even formally diagnosed with a concussion. Upon his death, Seau was discovered to have CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease found in athletes and others with a history of repeated head trauma.
As described by this NPR article, Seau’s death brought the issue of football-related concussions to the forefront of a national conversation – but six years later, are professional and collegiate teams doing enough to mitigate these risks today?
“I’m not sure they are,” Nutt says.
“Only about 40 percent of Division 1 schools actually have a licensed full-time mental health practitioner,” she tells HWTP Sports Talk. “That, to me, is kind of stunning when you consider the particular problems of athletes.”
An all-too common occurrence for pro football players, repeated hits to the skull are now widely known to pave the way to early-onset dementia, Nutt says.
However, “what a lot of people don't know is that any kind of head trauma increases the risk of developing a mental disorder – sometimes as much as 400 percent.”
In other words, dementia, CTE and cognitive loss aren’t the only potential consequences of repeated head trauma. Mental illnesses can also develop as a result.
“Things like depression, anxiety, and even schizophrenia – those are things that can happen from repeated blows to the head,” Nutt says.
Nutt also points to a study in which researchers examined the injury experience of elite athletes: “Having an injury – these researchers likened [that experience] to a grief process,” she tells David.
The study additionally found that with regard to depression and suicide, “about 10 to 20 percent of elite athletes who suffer an injury really warrant a clinical intervention,” according to Nutt.
“It’s easy to be blithe about it, but when that is your life and you injure something...and you might not be the person you were, or you might have to retire early – then it’s devastating, if that’s been your whole life and it’s taken away from you,” she says.
If you or someone you know is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK  or text HOME to 741741 for help.
Brian Tuohy on sports gambling (20:00)
Last month, the world of sports celebrated a long-awaited ruling from the Supreme Court. The 6-3 decision lifted a federal ban on sports gambling, essentially allowing it to transition from an underground practice (with the exception of Nevada) to a legal, above-ground enterprise that states can choose how to regulate.
Since the May ruling, both New Jersey and Delaware have instituted full-scale legalized sports betting. New Jersey’s began Thursday, with large crowds convening at racetracks to celebrate and place their first bets.
Brian Tuohy is a game fixing expert and author, notably of “The Fix Is In.” He joined David to discuss the potential pros and cons of the pastime’s newly-legalized status, and offer his thoughts on what the future may hold.
“I think overall, it’s a good thing,” Tuohy tells David. “If people want to do it...they should be allowed to do it. Then you can regulate it, then you can tax it, then you can have some sort of oversight on it.”
Another positive, according to Tuohy: before the Supreme Court ruling, “everything outside of Las Vegas and Nevada was basically illegal and was controlled mostly by organized crime.
“The more it's legalized, the more you take it out of organized crime’s hand – and the more, hopefully, you can regulate it,” he says.
Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Mississippi are the next few states in line to likely implement sports betting on a full scale in the near future. Legislation geared toward this goal has also been introduced, but not yet passed, in 15 additional states. Click here to follow ESPN’s state-by-state sports betting bill tracker.
Tuohy adds that not all consequences of legalizing sports gambling will be positive.
“On the downside, what I'm afraid is going to happen, at least at first – I think the sports media is going to get carried away with the gambling end of it,” he says.
Tuohy predicts that, to the dismay of the average sports fan, a large portion of sports coverage – including online articles – will likely begin slanting heavily toward this angle as betting becomes more widely available.
“I'm afraid that sports coverage...it's all going to become about gambling and about the betting line,” Tuohy says, “and I think it might get overwhelming for the casual fan who isn't gonna gamble. It just might be too in people's faces.”
“I think they're going to believe that the gambling fan is the engaged fan, and the more they can talk or write about gambling and the sports betting end of things, the more clicks they're going to get,” he adds.
“I think it's going to be a constant loop.”
As for modern-day figures like Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, a popular commentator and gambler on “The NFL Today” in the 1980s largely known for bringing sports gambling into the mainstream: “I think every show's going to have a guy like a Jimmy The Greek,” Tuohy says.
“What I think's going to be the problem is that they’re not going to vet any of these guys,” he continues. “They're going to find somebody on Twitter, or who has some sort of established reputation – be it good or bad, it's not going to matter – there’s gonna be somebody who's established in the gambling industry and they're going to make them a permanent panel member. And you're going to hear nonstop about, again, the gambling end of sports.”
“In the end I still think it's a good thing,” Tuohy says, “but I'm afraid the way the media is going to treat it is going to be a bad thing.”
As for the crowd that has already been gambling in the underbelly – “I don’t think it’s going away anytime soon,” he tells David.
Tuohy explains that a big reason is due to the fact that, unlike in illegal gambling, the major sports books are corporate-owned entities that do not accept huge wagers. “Especially from guys that they believe are sharp, good gamblers,” Tuohy adds.
“So, I think the underground is still going to exist because the illegal sports gambling industry is going to still take those big bets,” he says.
Furthermore, gamblers who win big money from underground bets don’t have to worry about paying taxes on what they win.
In Las Vegas, “you win over 10 grand, you're instantly taxed on it – whereas if you win it with Vinnie, you know, out on the corner, you don't have to.
“So even though it's going to be legalized...there's still going to be this illegal industry that exists, because they can get around certain things that proper sports books won't deal with, and the taxes and fees that they won’t to have to pay,” Tuohy says.
Listen to the whole conversation below.