Questions continued to swirl Friday about the stunning suicide of former NFL star linebacker Junior Seau.
Police responding to an emergency call at his Oceanside, California, home found Seau, 43, unconscious Wednesday with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest, according to Oceanside Police Chief Frank McCoy.
While immediate reactions have centered on concussion-related injuries in football, the national discussion also has highlighted questions about Seau's mental state in the hours before he took his life: What drove him to the edge? What was so bad that a millionaire ballplayer felt he had to end it all?
While no one knows for certain what Seau was dealing with, it is true that for many professional athletes, their "tough-guy" personas often mask the emotional stresses inherent in their lives, according to mental health experts.
“Professional athletes have the same percentage of anxiety, depression and mood disorders as the general population,” sports psychologist Joel Fish, who consults with the Philadelphia Flyers and Philadelphia 76ers, told HLN Thursday. ”Just because someone is big and strong physically doesn’t mean they are big and strong emotionally.”
Read more : Seau suicide linked to post-career trauma?
High-profile athletes -- as well as celebrities -- often set unrealistic expectations for themselves which can lead to disastrous results, Ron Maris, an expert in suicide and former professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School, told HLN Thursday.
“High expectations, achievements and perfectionism make it easier to fail, especially after your football prime is over,” Maris said. While most of our lives are “good enough” and full of compromises, Maris said, “There are no compromises for Seau and guys like him."
While no one knows what personal demons Seau was battling, his death has brought renewed scrutiny on a 2010 incident in which the then-newly retired football star's vehicle careened off a cliff. Was he crying out for help in some way? On Wednesday, TV analyst and former Seau teammate Marcellus Wiley recalled asking Seau that very question.
"I remember talking to him about the reports that he had crashed his car in an attempted suicide," Wiley, choking back tears, said on ESPN. "I remember talking to him because I said, 'Junior, be real with me, I'm your boy. I've fallen asleep before, I'm not perfect. Tell me you just fell asleep.' Junior told me he did. He didn't show me anything that were cries for help."
Wiley openly questioned why someone so well liked, so loved, never asked for help. "Come out and tell us you needed us," he said.
But professional athletes are oftentimes conditioned to withhold emotions, Fish says.
“In football, mental toughness is a top priority. It’s something that NFL scouts and personnel guys even try to look for in the NFL draft. There is still a feeling among certain players that it would be risky for them to be completely honest about what’s going on in their personal life because somehow it may be interpreted as a question on their mental toughness,” he said.