It is no surprise that traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) have all kinds of serious negative consequences. Psychology and neuroscience textbooks often cite examples of patients, such as Phineas Gage, and use them to explain the relationship between the brain and behavior. Patients who recover from TBIs, however, can still suffer consequences for years later. Researchers are beginning to uncover the link between TBIs and mental health. A study I found in The American Journal of Psychiatry examines the rate of mental illness in TBI patients a year after their injury. The researchers recruited 196 patients who had suffered a TBI the year before; they had all lost consciousness for a period of time during their injury. The patients were then interviewed and assessed for mental illness using the Schedules for Clinical Assessment in Neuropsychiatry.
They found that in the patients that were aged 18-64, 21.7% had a diagnosis for a mental illness, in comparison with 16.4% in the general population. Depression and panic disorder were observed at the highest rate among TBI patients, with 13.9% and 9.0%, respectively. Compared with 2.1% and 0.8% in the general population, these are extremely high rates.
This is a fairly old study, done in 1999, but recently, the media has picked up on the link between concussions and mental illness, particularly among former NFL players. Players such as Terry Bradshaw, Tony Dorsett, and the late Junior Seau have come forward, admitting that years of concussions have led to memory loss and depression. This is a serious problem, not only for the NFL, but for the thousands of young children in America who play contact sports.
These findings, as well as the stories of admired NFL players, will hopefully contribute to the fight against the stigma on mental illness. A focus on the biological nature of some mental illnesses counters the view that people who suffer from mental illness are “weak-minded”, and will hopefully lead to increased safety in sports such as football.
Deb, S., Lyons, I., Koutzoukis, C., Ali, I., & McCarthy, G. (1999). Rate of psychiatric illness 1 year after traumatic brain injury. American Journal of Psychiatry, 156 (3), 374-378.
USA Today article on NFL players and concussions: