Traumatic Brain Injury and Mental Illness

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:

5 thoughts on “Traumatic Brain Injury and Mental Illness

  1. This is a very interesting topic, Maddie! I wonder if there are updated studies on this information. I wonder whether the specific type of injury is correlated to the type of mental illness that is recorded to come as a result. For example, I know there are many studies about mental health and TBIs that occur at war. In one study that I have read published by the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research, the authors discuss psychological and cognitive injuries that come during or as a result of war. Specifically, they discuss TBIs, PTSD, and major depressive disorder– finding that “[a]bout one-third of those previously deployed have at least one of these three conditions, and about 5 percent report symptoms of all three.” This is huge! As someone very interested in mental health, I would like to explore further the role of PTSD in veterans who have experienced traumatic brain injuries while deployed–and the other mental health issues they may have, too.

    – Erin Caputo


  2. This article has particularly sparked my interest due to an experiences I have read and heard about men who have traumatic brain injuries and develop anger management issues and abusive tendencies. It causes me to question whether these injuries have severed or injured a section of the brain that primarily acts in self control or if there are other extraneous factors? For example, could there be a degree of aggression these men are taking out on say their partners over their decreased skills and memory, etc. I believe it is different from case to case but there has to be some degree of connection between neurological damage and social perception of the injury/self-frustration.

    Jessica Aronis


  3. I enjoyed reading this post because it relates closely with some of my interests in psychology. I spent my fall semester conducting research on different mental illnesses and how strong of a correlation there seems to be for individuals who have experienced a traumatic brain injury. One of the biggest forms of entertainment that we enjoy as Americans is the NFL. This is one of the most notable contact sports. One thing we seem to forget sometimes when we watch these sports is the consequences that the players experience. There has been a lot of recent research conducted especially in the field of sports and many teams have established safer ways for their players to play the game. Hopefully with further research, we will be able to acquire more efficient techniques and the stigma of mental illness will diminish.

    -Taysir Jama


  4. One thing that could be influencing these studies (and I haven’t read any specifics, so I could be wrong in assuming they are not considering this angle) could be the change in lifestyle that often results from traumatic brain injuries. I know many who have suffered major concussions and then battled mental illness afterwards because they have had to give up a part of their lives that they love–usually a sport. After dedicating the time and effort to the sport, having it taken away by something they are powerless to control and being restricted in new and frustrating ways because of the brain injury often made them depressed. This may not be the case in a larger group of those who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, but it is important to consider that the mental illness may be partly a result of the way lives change after such injuries.


  5. This connection between brain injuries and mental illness is a very interesting concept! I hadn’t ever really thought about how they may be correlated but can definitely see how it would make sense. As an athlete, I have experienced a few minor concussions and know how dangerous they can be. My brother, also an athlete, has had a few as well. His was more serious than mine and we had to watch him for a while after the incident. This connection also makes me think more about the questions that the doctor asks when they are diagnosis a concussion and when you go back to be cleared. A few of the questions are about your mood and how you have been feeling lately. Previously, I hadn’t thought much about these questions but now wonder if they are an indicator for later mental illnesses.


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