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Jovan Belcher tragedy illustrates need to recognize distress signals

The Chiefs were aware issues between Jovan Belcher his girlfriend provided counseling for them. | Jamie Squire~Getty Images

The Chiefs were aware of issues between Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend and provided counseling for them. | Jamie Squire~Getty Images

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Updated: January 8, 2013 6:30AM

“How are you?”

It’s a customary part of conversations.

But former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn compelled me to rethink how honestly I answer that question and how sincerely I ask it.

The day after teammate Jovan Belcher murdered his live-in girlfriend, then killed himself, Quinn pondered, “What could I have done differently?”

“We live in a society of social networks, with Twitter pages and Facebook, and that’s fine, but we have contact with our work associates, our family, our friends,” Quinn said after leading the Kansas City Chiefs to a 27-21 victory Sunday. “And it seems like half the time we are more preoccupied with our phone and other things going on instead of the actual relationships that we have right in front of us.”

Guilty, guilty, guilty.

I’m on Twitter constantly, Facebook frequently and my cell phone is always on my person, except when I take my kids swimming. So how many cries for help or opportunities to encourage someone in despair have I missed?

Belcher wasn’t an isolated incident. In Berea, Ohio, at the headquarters of the Cleveland Browns, an assistant grounds­keeper named Eric Eucker committed suicide by hanging himself Saturday in an equipment shed. In his suicide note, Eucker reportedly indicated he was dejected by the direction of his job.

Did any of the other five employees on the Browns’ grounds crew notice? How about any of Eucker’s relatives or friends?

In Kansas City, the Chiefs were aware of issues between Belcher and his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and provided the couple counseling.

“I’m not a psychologist,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel told ­reporters. “I don’t know what made him snap.”

But we don’t need advanced degrees to notice something is amiss with someone we care about, Dr. John Draper said.

Draper directs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free, 24-hour confidential suicide-prevention hotline. Each call is routed to the nearest crisis center, a network of more than 150 around the nation. But Draper said all of us are the best preventers of suicide.

“When people say, ‘What can I do?’ it’s about connection and compassion. The ‘How are you doing?’ check-ins and just being there for people,” said Draper, a psychologist. “There’s no substitute for that.”

Psychiatrist Tom Ciesla said we should be mindful of changes in “mood, attitude and behavior” in those we associate with.

“Making a connection with someone you’re worried about is hard for a stranger to do but it’s easier to talk to a family member or a friend,” said Ciesla, the medical director of mental-health services at Saint John’s Hospital and Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. “It’s important everyone be aware of signs but don’t jump to conclusions.”

Since 2011, at least five former or current NFL players have committed suicide. In late July, the NFL, with help from Draper’s organization, launched its own crisis hotline.

The service has been used, said Robert Gulliver, the NFL’s executive vice president of human resources, although they don’t know how many times.

“We thought confidentiality would be extremely important, so we protect that and make sure that’s guarded very carefully,” said Gulliver, who noted that a third-party company facilitates the service. “But it’s for anyone who is a part of the NFL family.”

The league wants to do more.

Several weeks ago, Gulliver said, the league and its advisors discussed the possibility of identifying “gate-keepers.”

“People that can spot behavior that needs to be addressed and advise people,” Gulliver said.

Draper noted that people most likely to commit suicide have made an attempt. Ultimately, 7 percent of those people kill themselves.

“But 93 percent who tried to do so and survive went on to live their lives. Something happened for them to say, ‘I need to live,’ ” he said. “We don’t hear those stories because people who survive attempts don’t talk about it. But the vast majority, with support and help, lead good lives.”

In a tech-driven world designed to connect us, there seems to be growing disconnect in which face-to-face interactions are replaced by Twitter “conversations” and Facebook exchanges.

But all of the advancements should complement, not replace, the way we communicate.

Because we certainly don’t want to be buried in our iPads and BlackBerrys when someone sends out a distress signal.

If you are in crisis, call the ­National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

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