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Lose the stigmatizing adjectives.

Football being the real American idol, recent events involving the Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher is headline news today.  As a Kansas City area resident all of my adult life and as a former football fan, the story was of interest to me.  As someone who advocates for those who live with and care for the mentally ill, it really hit home.

Apparently Belcher first killed his girlfriend, with whom he had a three-month-old child, then he drove to Arrowhead stadium and shot himself in the presence of general manager Scott Pioli and coach Romeo Crennel.

The case is, by and large, being discussed in terms of domestic violence. But I feel it’s worth considering whether some kind of impairment was involved – whether that was mental illness, repeated head injury, or a combination of these two and possibly other factors.

As disturbing as this sequence of events is, what concerns me today is the way the tragedy was discussed on the front page of the Kansas City Star on Sunday.  Consider these two quotes:

“What Belcher did on Saturday made him first a criminal, then a coward.”

“The rest of us know him for a gruesome, heartless, and cowardly act.”

Few would argue with calling murder “criminal,” “gruesome,” or “heartless.”  However, the reactions we have to the act of suicide vary widely.  The fact is that suicide is very often the fatal result of the mental illness called depression.  We would never consider labeling a person “cowardly” if he died of cancer.

Even when depressed people receive treatment, they and those who care for them walk a painful path. But when depression and other mental illnesses go untreated, those left behind have a host of terrible consequences to deal with. My fear is that using adjectives such as “cowardly” only serves to perpetuate the stigma associated with the illness, thus discouraging sufferers from seeking the help they need.

I suggest that empathy and education are the best response to this type of tragedy. We should work toward a culture that does not stigmatize the realities of mental illness, one in which even tough football players aren’t afraid to reach out for help.

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