NFL players working to ease stigma around mental health help

By Rob Maaddi

The pressures of the NFL were getting to Marcus Smith II.

He hadn’t lived up to the expectations of being Philadelphia’s first-round pick, which led to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, being released by the Eagles — and a move across the country to Seattle. Smith didn’t talk about his mental health because he didn’t want anyone to think he wasn’t tough enough to play in the league.

On his way to Seahawks practice in August 2018, he stopped at the edge of a hill, ready to drive off of it. A call from his pregnant wife and his mother-in-law changed his mind. He went to practice and told coach Pete Carroll and defensive line coach Cliff Hurtt what happened.

“(Carroll) supported me in every way possible. He actually helped me get that therapist, let me know that everything was going to be fine,” said Smith, who was drafted in 2014. “It took me at least six, seven months to go through all the things in the past that I had never addressed. … If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have done what I was doing and I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

Seattle Seahawks HC Pete Carroll, talks with DE Marcus Smith (97) during stretching before an NFL training camp, Aug. 7, 2017 AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Smith has dedicated himself to making sure other players don’t reach the breaking point he was at. He’s also among many former and active NFL players who are sharing their personal stories to break the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage people to seek help they need. The league and the NFL Players Association are offering resources for teams, too.

“I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction with guys actually opening up and going to get the help,” Smith said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “I just want to make sure that it’s not too late. That’s why we have to continue to speak about it.”

Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins has been working to educate people about mental health — or cerebral wellness, as he likes to call it — since his induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018.

Two-time Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins, who retired after last season, has talked openly about weekly therapy sessions that help him cope with stress because he wants young men to know it’s not a weakness.

Six-time Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall has become an outspoken mental health advocate since he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder during his playing career.

Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Chris Hubbard holds an annual event for mental health through his Overcoming Together Foundation. Hubbard was drawn to the issue after a friend in high school killed himself.

“I know for a lot of us, especially the African American community, it’s not talked about,” Hubbard said. “I wanted to get to a level where I can help others out, to let people know that you’re not alone, that we’re in this thing together, and we can overcome it together.”

Free agent safety Douglas Middleton, who has played parts of six seasons with six teams, started Dream the Impossible Foundation to serve people with mental health issues after his best friend died by suicide in 2017.

Cleveland Browns’ Chris Hubbard speaks at an NFL press conference Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Berea, Ohio. Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer via AP

Middleton stresses the importance of proactively seeking therapy.

“I always tell people it’s not something that you do in response to having a bad day,” he said. “It’s more like how can I make sure I don’t have a bad day, how can I be the best version of myself. You’re not going to lift weights when you feel bad. You’re going to lift weights to continue to feel good, look good and be a healthy person. So, you have to treat your mental health like your physical.”

The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed in May 2019 to increase mental health resources available to players and club staff. Each team is required to have a licensed behavioral health clinician on staff, as well as a pain management specialist.

The players’ union makes a clinician directory available to all players in helping them locate a clinician near them, be it a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counselor.

Through their insurance, all players receive up to eight free counseling sessions at no cost. NFL Life Line provides suicide prevention, crisis management and in-the-moment problem solving with trained crisis counselors.

There’s also a supplemental health benefit through The Trust, which serves players who have or had at least two seasons in the NFL, that gives former players access to outpatient psychiatry and counseling services in their home communities. And the Professional Athletes Foundation provides wellness tips and resources for former players.

“We don’t want this dark picture around mental health,” Smith said. “It’s a journey that you can overcome.”

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