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Aaron Hernandez’s suicide: Were there warning signs?

Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. Keith Bedford/globe staff

Perhaps the signs were right there on Aaron Hernandez’s face in the moments after he was cleared of committing a double murder. The New England Patriots star, who displayed little sadness or regret during his monthlong trial, choked back tears as the jury announced its verdict last week.

On Wednesday, five days after that decision, Hernandez was found hanged in his cell at the state’s maximum security prison, where he was serving a life sentence without the chance of parole for an earlier murder. State officials said Hernandez committed suicide. Had the elation of being found not guilty last week, following time spent outside the confines of prison, collided with the realization that nothing had changed, that he was back in a prison cell and quite possibly destined to spend the rest of his life there?


The reasons for suicide are as perplexing as they are common, with more than 40,000 people a year taking their own lives in the United States, federal data show. Suicide behind bars is even more complex.

Richard Melloni Jr., a psychology professor and director of behavioral neuroscience at Northeastern University, said he was struck by video showing Hernandez’s rare display of tears last week when he was acquitted in the double murders.

“Maybe his emotion was a sign of depression that was starting to rear its head,” said Melloni, who was not involved in Hernandez’s case.

Hernandez’s death came the same day his former teammates were invited to the White House. But Melloni said it was unlikely a single factor spurred any decision to end his life. He may have been struggling with a multitude of problems, including mental health issues, according to Melloni.

This much seemed clear: Several circumstances of Hernandez’s apparent suicide mirrored findings of a 2010 US Department of Justice study about suicides in jail. The study concluded that 35 percent of suicides occurred close to the date of a court hearing. It found that 93 percent of victims used hanging as the method, with 66 percent using bedding as the instrument.


Hernandez was found hanged from a bedsheet attached to a window in his cell at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley, the state Department of Correction said in a statement.

While key differences exist between jails and prisons — jails typically house people awaiting trial and those serving short sentences, while prisons confine convicts long term — the Justice Department’s study remains illustrative of life behind bars, said Danna Mauch, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.

“People attempt, and sadly complete, suicides in jails and prisons. It’s not an uncommon event. It’s just not as often in the press,” Mauch said.

“Many people in jail and prison arrive there with mental health conditions or substance abuse [issues], and many others acquire them by conditions of incarceration,” Mauch said.

The Department of Correction said Wednesday that Hernandez was not considered a suicide risk. But a former state worker, briefed on Hernandez’s history in prison, said some clinicians believed Hernandez needed counseling, given the depths to which he had fallen, and the likelihood his sentence would end only with his death behind bars. The employee was not authorized to discuss the internal working of the correction department.

Some mental health specialists said they hoped the extensive media coverage of Hernandez’s death will highlight warning signs of suicide, including depression, irritability, rage, withdrawing from activities, and giving away prized possessions.


“Although we know quite a bit about suicide, we are still behind when it comes to suicide prevention,” said Elsa Ronningstam, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital.

Ronningstam and others said they worry that media coverage of high-profile suicides may trigger other people to think about or attempt suicide. But it may also prompt some to seek help.

“We have seen both positives and negatives. Sometimes when a celebrity suicide hits the news, we will see an increase of call volumes to the center,” said Steve Mongeau, executive director of Samaritans, a nonprofit that runs a 24-hour suicide-prevention hot line.

Mongeau said that after the 2014 suicide of comedian Robin Williams, calls to the suicide hot line jumped 50 percent.

“A lot of the calls were from people who were worried about a friend and someone they loved,” he said.

Mongeau said he expects the Hernandez news may trigger a large increase in calls, too. The Samaritan’s hot line, 877-870-4673, accepts calls and texts.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com.