It was five years ago this month that the NFL launched its suicide-prevention hotline, NFL Life Line.
The anniversary date is no accident. It was in May 2012 that Pro Football Hall of Famer Junior Seau shot himself in the chest, killing him. While the NFL had seen suicides before, this was one of the greatest players of all time who spent 20 seasons in the league.
"That really rocked the community,” said NFL Life Line program director Ciara Dockery, “and the NFL wanted to do something greater to support those in crisis."
NFL Life Line was born. The program offers current and former NFL players, staff, and their families a hotline and online chat services for anyone with suicidal thoughts. The suicide hotline is staffed 24 hours a day with licensed counselors, all trained on specific issues affecting NFL players, staff, and their families. There's also a website that offers the opportunity to chat online with counselors if necessary.
NFL suicides have again been in the headlines over the last month. Former Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan talked about his suicide plans before coming out as gay. Investigators announced just this week that the death of former Buffalo Bills and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver James Hardy has been ruled a suicide.
At least two dozen former NFL players are known to have committed suicide.
While NFL Life Line is designed to help people in the NFL, no one’s phone call gets dismissed. If fans make calls, they will be heard.
“They'll talk to that person and help identify other crisis lines that are available,” said Dwight Hollier, NFL vice president for wellness and clinical services. “They're not going to just hang up. They are crisis counselors. They can navigate most crisis situations, but they are specifically hired to work with this particular population. You can’t just balk at a situation based on their profession. Crises happen in many different ways.”
With a target audience that includes NFL players, some of the issues the counselors are trained in relate directly to the unique nature of playing in the league. Physical pain is a big one, as is the feeling of loss when after so many years of playing football in Pee Wee League, high school, college and the pros, the “football” part of a player’s identity is suddenly gone.
"That’s a really tough transition,” Dockery said. “Even when you have your life planned out, it's a tough transition to make. You have to reinvent yourself."
Even with the special circumstances facing so many former NFL players, according to Dockery, most of the calls they receive revolve around issues facing people of every profession, including relationship problems and money.
“We tend to forget football players are regular people too, and life comes at them like the rest of us,” Docker said. “Most of the callers are talking about normal stressors like everyone else.”
One challenge the NFL faces in getting people the help they need has been breaking down the “macho” attitude that asking for help displays weakness. To help break down that barrier, NFL Life Line has created a series of videos featuring NFL stars, like Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, talking about the importance of the service in helping everyone in “the NFL family” get the support they need.
“We can't isolate; it's the worth thing in the world for a man to do,” Irvin says in the video (below). “When we talk, we find out that we all go through some of the same issues, and you may be able to talk to someone that has been in the issue that you’re in and has come out of it and they can tell you how to come out of it.”
Dockery said every year the number of calls has increased in large part due to the outreach they do with people like Irvin, plus their work with other groups like the NFL Legends, the NFL Players Association, the Off The Field Players’ Wives Association and others. Recently, NFL Life Line conducted a training with every NFL team chaplain.
The project has made changes over the years. One development Hollier heralded is an online self-evaluation system that helps anyone in the NFL family assess where they are emotionally and mentally. Based on their answers to simple questions, they can connect with a counselor right there on the screen.
One of the keys to success for NFL Life Line, Hollier said, is staying current.
“It's an ever-growing process,” he said. “You learn a little bit every year, and you try to adjust and keep up.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the confidentiality system. The identity of every caller is kept completely confidential. Not even the NFL has access to any information about any calls — Dockery said there is nothing the NFL could do to ever get access to NFL Life Line’s caller information. Dockery is so protective of the information they receive, she won’t even publicly share the number of calls they receive annually.
Still, the one element that will drive NFL Life Line to break confidentiality with law enforcement is an imminent threat to the life of the caller. If the counselor believes the caller is about to take his/her life — and they are well-trained to identify this — they will contact local authorities. This is a standard policy of suicide hotlines. The goal, after all, is to save lives.
"Life line has absolutely saved lives,” Hollier said. “Without question."
If you are a member of the NFL family who needs help, contact NFL Life Line on their Web site, or call 800-506-0078. Licensed counselors are there to help every second of every day.