When he swallowed two bottles of over-the-counter pain medication and a fifth of 151-proof rum in Fall 2002, former Duke baseball player Aaron Kempster was precariously close to joining Taylor Hooton, Rob Garibaldi, Efrain Marrero and others in a fraternity that no athlete ever wants to join.
Anabolic steroid withdrawal has been a topic of interest among scientists studying the effects of steroid abuse ever since the drugs were first used illegally in the 1970s. Withdrawal-induced depression earned even more notoriety last month during Congressional hearings investigating steroids in Major League Baseball.
At the hearings, Hooton’s and Garibaldi’s parents spoke of their sons’ steroid withdrawals and subsequent suicides. Drug addiction experts, including leading steroid withdrawal expert Dr. Kirk Brower, an addiction-treatment specialist at the University of Michigan, shed light on the mechanism by which anabolic steroids affect the brain and on scientific studies performed to investigate steroid withdrawal.
Kempster attempted suicide about three months after he stopped using the anabolic steroids Equipoise and Winstrol during the summer of 2002. Kempster said he does not know whether steroid withdrawal was a factor in his suicide attempt. When asked about Kempster’s case specifically, Brower said it seemed consistent with steroid-induced depression.
The anecdotal evidence from parents and the scientific data from doctors have led to the same conclusion, that in general steroid withdrawal-induced depression is real, and it can be a causal factor for suicide.
“I am convinced that Taylor’s secret use of anabolic steroids played a significant role in causing the severe depression that resulted in his suicide,” Taylor Hooton’s father, Donald, told the Congressional Committee on Government Reform. “I have learned that what happened to Taylor—the events leading up to and including his suicide—are right out of the medical textbook on steroids.”
Testosterone, the hormone that anabolic steroids mimic, has been used in controlled amounts since the 1930s to treat conditions ranging from impotence to depression to body wasting from diseases such as AIDS. Brower said studies investigating the use of supplemental testosterone to restore the body’s normal hormone balance have indicated that there is little to no danger of dependence and associated withdrawal symptoms upon ceasing usage.
But quantity used by athletes looking to increase muscle mass is 10 to 100 times larger than the amount the body produces for normal function. Though few studies have been done under these conditions—because of the ethical problems involved in treating people with such unnatural doses—the data that is available indicate that the usage of anabolic steroids in these amounts can be addictive and can produce withdrawal symptoms, including depression and suicide.
Brower told the Congressional committee that at least 165 cases of dependence on anabolic steroids have been documented.
A study cited by Brower during the hearings stated that 3.9 percent of 77 illicit anabolic steroid users followed by doctors attempted suicide during the withdrawal period.
“We think of depression within the first three months of that withdrawal period,” Brower said.
Researchers generally agree upon the mechanism through which depression can be invoked by stopping steroid use. Edward Klaiber, a Massachusetts-based researcher and clinician who studies the psychological effects of hormones like testosterone, said anabolic steroids used in larger than natural doses flood users’ systems with testosterone. The abuser’s own testosterone production is depressed in an attempt to keep the body’s hormones balanced and may not recover in the months after anabolic steroid use is stopped.
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“They may depress their own testicle so much that it does not recover,” Klaiber said. “I have seen young men who use steroids when they are 16, and I see them a year later, and they still have very low levels.”
Brower said in his testimony before Congress that depressive symptoms associated with steroid withdrawal are correlated with lowered levels of testosterone, a natural anti-depressant. He added that well-controlled experiments have indicated that decreasing testosterone levels in the body can lead to depression.
Jake Poses contributed to this story.