On Kenny McKinley's Suicide, The Tragedy Of Depression, And Gratitude

Kenny McKinley was just 23 years old, an NFL player, and someone with a bright future. He committed suicide on Monday, reportedly succumbing to a battle with depression. And his death leaves questions. How did this happen? Who do we blame? How do we react?

It's pretty difficult to discuss depression without coming off as trite. There's only so much a person can say without sounding like a preachy alarmist. So what to do here?

I could offer anecdotes. Like a friend that left school a week into his senior year in college, paralyzed with anxiety, unable to sleep or leave his dorm. Or the friend that stayed in college despite similar issues, drowned his depression in drugs and alcohol, and still hasn't recovered. Or my aunt, who lived with depression for thirty years, coped with drug and alcohol abuse, and overdosed on heroin and cocaine when I was 14 years old.

But the anecdotes are cheap. An easy way to pull at people's heartstrings, but that only goes so far, eliciting an emotional reaction contained within a given story. This deserves a broader treatment. So what about statistics? At least 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression, 80% of which goes untreated. 55% of Americans believe depression represents a personal weakness, and 15% of those afflicted will commit suicide. Those are the facts.

But how do we connect facts to our experience? We could try and use sports as a case study for society. Like Ricky Williams, who spoke to Sports Illustrated about his time battling depression, and remembered, "There's a physical prejudice in sports. When it's a broken bone, the teams will do everything in their power to make sure it's OK. When it's a broken soul, it's like a weakness." We could talk about Barrett Robbins, Andre Waters, Todd Marinovich, Shawn Andrews, and a hundred other athletes that have battled this disease with varying success. And yes, we could talk about Kenny McKinley, the 23 year-old wide receiver for the Broncos who took his own life this week.

As the Denver Post reports:

Broncos receiver Kenny McKinley was suffering from depression after undergoing knee surgery four weeks ago, according to a report released Tuesday night by the Arapahoe County Sheriff's office.

The sheriff's office report, quoting an investigator at the scene, said McKinley had made statements shortly after the surgery "that he should just kill himself." The report added McKinley didn't know what he would do if he couldn't play football because football was all he knew.

McKinley was found in his upstairs bedroom with a pillow over his head. The gun, a black, semiautomatic Taurus, was inside the pillow case and McKinley's right hand was just below the gun's grip. The TV in the bedroom was on the NFL Network.

But in the end, there's only so much that can be said. Not because we're afraid to be preachy, but because it's impossible to preach about something that defies our understanding.

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In life, we're really good at sharing the joy that accompanies the human experience. Whether it's celebrating a big game, enjoying a movie with 300 strangers, or smiling at a newborn we've never met, who we'll probably never see again. We share in the joy, because it's easy, and these things help life make sense. So we celebrate together, often with people we don't know.

But all too often,even when we're surrounded by the people that know us best, we mourn as individuals. And when we look at Kenny McKinley's demise, it speaks to an experience that's universal—sometimes, life feels just plain, impossible. Lonely and hopeless and impossible.

Which brings us back to depression: What makes some people process that feeling better than others? What makes one person see the silver lining, and another see only clouds? Why does one person reach out, and another person retreat? That's the futility of all this; we can never really know what someone else is thinking. Nobody can understand why Kenny McKinley's knee injury left him so hopeless. Even in 2010, the questions dwarf any answers here.

And as the reality of this latest tragedy sets in, we're going to want answers. We'll want to assess blame. Whether that means blaming someone with the Broncos, blaming the NFL, blaming head injuries, or just blaming everyone. Because somebody should have noticed, they'll say.

The tragedy, though, is that there are no answers, and there's nobody to blame.

Yes, we can always improve the detection and understanding of mental illnesses, particularly among professional sports. It's simple. Men are less likely to open up about their problems—it compounds itself among men who happen to play professional sports for a living, incurring serious head injuries and the post-traumatic stress that comes with them. McKinley never had a head injury, though.

With treatment for depression and a proactive plan for recovery, he might have been saved, but it's nobody's fault that he wasn't. For athletes and other people, extreme depression strikes like cancer: randomly and without warning. We save the people we can, and with the ones we can't... It's just really, really sad.

And instructive, too. Depression ruins lives. It kills people every day.

But if you're reading this site, you're probably intelligent enough to realize as much. Yeah, there we never have enough discussions about depression, but that work's been done elsewhere.

So, rather than another lesson on depression, I'll just say that Kenny McKinley's death made me stop and think this week. He was 23 years-old when he died. Three weeks older than me. He died of depression, a disease that runs in my family.

I've thought about it a lot. Turned it over in my head again and again. But in the end, it doesn't make me angry or afraid. It just makes me grateful. For someone like Ricky Williams, who nearly lost his career to depression but eventually made it all the way back. For the friend who spent his senior year in the psych ward, and will graduate college later this year. For my family members that battled depression but didn't end up like my aunt, who was far too amazing to have passed when she did.

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Young people's death... Suicide... Depression... These are topics that baffle us. But when you really think about it—the statistics, the apathy of a society that gets busier every day, the tragic anecdotes that we all gather along the way—it's equally baffling that things like this don't happen more often.

And in the end, it's a terrible tragedy that life felt hopeless and impossible for Kenny McKinley. But it's also a good reminder of how impossibly lucky most of us are.

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