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Courtesy of Jockeys' Guild

Help for Jockeys Battling Effects of Head Injuries

After the Impact Fund is now working with jockeys.

Former NFL quarterback Eric Hipple said that since more attention has been given to retired players battling the effects of brain injury since 2008, suicide rates among retired NFL players have skyrocketed—a trend he links to players reading about the problems, but not reading about treatment options.

Hipple, who attempted suicide himself after his playing career, welcomes the attention being given to the problem, but thinks follow-up is lacking on options for retired players who suffer from these side effects that include sleep and eating problems, irritability, increased risk-taking, depression, inability to focus, and substance abuse.

"The problem was, there was no hope," Hipple said of the impression players were getting from reading stories on depression linked to brain injury. "A lot of these problems can be treated fairly easily. Some are more difficult, but they also can be treated."

Hipple, director of outreach for the After the Impact Fund, delivered that message Dec. 12 at the Jockeys' Guild Assembly in Las Vegas. After the Impact helps current and retired athletes as well as veterans suffering from the effects of brain injuries get the proper treatment.

Through funding provided by track owner The Stronach Group, After the Impact this year has worked with seven jockeys battling similar problems. After the Impact Fund executive director Shannon Jordan said knowing where to turn for both diagnosis and treatment of the problems can be overwhelming for an individual and their family. The organization uses its expertise to point patients in the right direction.

Hipple noted that athletes who suffer injury can face a second mental wellness hurdle as they make a transition to a new life away from sports. He said athletes who miss an extended amount of time because of injury also can feel isolated.

Hipple shared his own story—including a suicide attempt in which he dove out of a moving car on an interstate—and spoke of serving 58 days in jail for driving under the influence. He believes the ending of his career, a family history of depression, and suffering a fractured skull in an auto accident as a teen all were factors in his depression. He said during his time in jail, he heard a three-time DUI offender blaming others for his problems, and that's when Hipple decided he had to do something about his own issues.

In his role with After the Impact, Hipple said he's heard too many stories of patients having their symptoms treated without getting to the underlying problems.

Jordan noted that if a person has a substance abuse problem, that has to be treated first. Then the underlying problem that led to that substance abuse can be addressed.

The Jockeys' Guild continues to try to raise awareness of the dangers of concussion and head injuries with its riders, encouraging them to participate in baseline assessments that helps physicians diagnose a concussion after an injury.

Jockeys' Guild national manager Terry Meyocks noted the easiest pieces of advice in this area are to make sure riders are using the best helmets and that they allow time to heal after a concussion before going back to riding. But for riders who are facing challenges linked to such injuries, After the Impact is helping point them toward the best treatment, tailored for each individual.

Later in the day, noting The Stronach Group's contribution, the Jockeys' Guild awarded Stronach Group chairwoman and president Belinda Stronach the Eddie Arcaro Award for dedication to horse racing.

"Stronach Group is an amazing organization and an amazing family," said After the Impact Fund director of operations Tamara Alan. "We've been blown away by their generosity."

Also Tuesday, Permanently Disabled Jockeys' Fund president Nancy LaSala provided the Guild with an update of its efforts to assist injured riders.

LaSala said the fund contributes $1,000 a month to about 60 injured riders, noting that it has no permanent funding mechanism and relies completely on contributions. LaSala said if those contributions ended tomorrow, the PDJF would be able to continue contributions for about 18 months.

The PDJF also has an endowment with $3.7 million. The goal of the endowment is to reach a point that its interest could provide for disabled riders' needs. LaSala estimated the endowment would need to reach about $30 million to reach that goal.

The PDJF is an industry organization, separate from the Guild, although both organizations share many of the same goals. LaSala encouraged riders to continue to wear the PDJF logo on their pants or PDJF ball caps, noting the attention it brings for the fund as well as the good feelings it gives injured riders.

"Connection means a lot to these men and women and their families," LaSala said. "They come to me and say that when they've been watching a big race and see the hat or the logo that they feel a part of it. It means so much to them."