NFL players working to ease the stigma surrounding mental health are helping

Former Seahawks defensive end Marcus Smith credits Seahawks coach Pete Carroll for helping him when he was struggling with his mental health. Now he’s sharing his story to help others get the help they need. Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

The pressure of the NFL was getting to Marcus Smith II.

He fell short of expectations to be Philadelphia’s No. 1 pick, leading to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, his release from the Eagles — and a cross-country move to Seattle. Smith didn’t talk about his mental health because he didn’t want anyone to think he wasn’t healthy enough to play in the league.

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

“(Carol) supported me in every way possible. He actually helped me find this therapist, let me know that everything was going to be okay,” said Smith, who was elected in 2014. “It took me at least six, seven months to go through all the things in the past that never he was turning. … If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing and probably wouldn’t be here today.”

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

“I definitely think we’re moving in the right direction with guys really getting open and they’re going to get the help,” Smith said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “I just want to make sure it’s not too late. That’s why we have to keep talking about it.”

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

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

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

Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Chris Hubbard holds an annual mental health event through his Overcoming Together Foundation. Hubbard was drawn to the problem after a friend of his 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 could help others, let people know that you’re not alone, that we’re in this together and we can get through it together.”

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

Middleton emphasizes the importance of proactively seeking therapy.

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

The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed in May 2019 to increase mental health resources available to players and club personnel. Each team must have a licensed behavioral health professional as well as a pain management specialist.

The Players’ Union provides a clinician directory to all players to help them find a clinician near them, whether it’s a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counsellor.

Through their insurance, all players receive up to eight free counseling sessions at no charge. NFL Life Line provides suicide prevention, crisis management and problem solving right now with trained crisis counselors.

There is also an additional health benefit through The Trust, which serves players who have or have had at least two seasons in the NFL, which gives former players access to outpatient psychiatry and counseling services in their 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 you can overcome.”

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