The popularity of extreme sports has boomed since 1990, fueled by on-demand coverage, insane Youtube channels and lucrative sponsorship deals. Amateurs are also getting in on the action. Skydiving is so popular that even our late 90-something president George H.W. Bush tried it multiple times (with a tandem partner). BASE jumping — launching from a cliff or bridge with a parachute — requires more skill and is also drawing more participants. While indoor skydiving is making a bid to become an Olympic sport.

Some therapists promote extreme activities to help people overcome depression or stress. The theory is that risk-taking activity releases dopamine — a neurotransmitter that floods the brain with pleasurable sensations most often felt after a good meal or sex. 

Yet, many of these activities are called 'extreme' because they are extremely dangerous. In BASE jumping there is one death for every 2,317 jumps and one injury in every 254. The sport’s crazy cousin wingsuit flying is even more dangerous. A select few know how to jump off a cliff wearing a suit that balloons like a parachute, allowing them to glide like a bird on currents of air down to the ground. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the death rate may be as high as 1 in 50 and well known jumpers die every year.

Valery Rozov was a celebrated Russian jumper who broke records when he dropped from a peak near Mount Everest to glide about 3 miles onto a glacier below. In 2017 he crashed into the side of a mountain in Nepal and died.

Now, more and more studies are suggesting these risk-taking activities could be signs of mental health problems. Researchers in California and Australia compared BASE jumpers with gamblers and found that both sets had a lot in common.

“Extreme sports also may attract people with a genetic predisposition for risk, risk-seeking personality traits, or underlying psychiatric disorders in which impulsivity and risk taking are integral to the underlying problem,” they reported in the National Institutes of Health Permanente Journal. 

It concluded that sports psychiatrists should be working with extreme sports enthusiasts to determine why they are willing to risk their lives for an adrenaline rush, and help them modify their behavior so they can lead healthy and productive lives.

The message is that we should perhaps be stopping people from trying to kill themselves, rather than cheering them on.

Published on Feb 21, 2020