NFL players work to ease stigma around mental health aid

Written by Rob Maady, AP Pro . football writer

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

He fell short of expectations of being a Philadelphia pick in the first round, leading to anxiety, depression, panic attacks and his release by 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 strong enough to play in the league.

On his way to training for the Seahawks in August 2018, he stopped at the edge of a hill, ready to drive away from him. 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 had happened.

“(Carol) has supported me in every possible way. Drafted in 2014, he actually helped me get this therapist, and told me everything was going to be OK,” Smith, who was drafted in 2014, said to go through all the Things in the past that were never addressed. … If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have done what I was doing and probably wouldn’t be here today.”

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Smith devoted himself to making sure the other players didn’t reach his breaking point. He’s also among many active and former NFL players who are sharing their personal stories to break the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage people to seek the help they need. The league and the NFL Players Association offer resources for teams as well.

“I definitely think we’re going in the right direction with really opening up to the players and they’re going to get 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 been educating people about mental health — or brain wellness, as he likes to call it — since starting his induction into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 2018.

Two-time Super Bowl champion Malcolm Jenkins, who retired after last season, has spoken candidly about his weekly therapy sessions helping him cope with stress because he wants youngsters 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 football career.

Cleveland Browns forward Chris Hubbard holds an annual mental health event through the Overcoming Together Foundation. Hubbard was drawn to this affair after a high school friend committed suicide himself.

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

Douglas Middleton, who played in six seasons with six bands, launched the Dream the Impossible Foundation to serve people with mental health issues after his best friend’s death by suicide in 2017.

Middleton stresses the importance of proactively seeking treatment.

“I always tell people it’s not something you do in response to a bad day,” he said. “It’s a lot like how do 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’re feeling bad. You’ll lift weights to continue to feel good and look good and be a healthy person. So, you have to deal with. With your mental health as with your physical health.”

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

The Players Association makes a medical guide available to all players to help them locate a doctor near them, whether it is a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker or counsellor.

With their insurance, all players receive up to eight free counseling sessions at no cost. The NFL Life Line provides suicide prevention, crisis management, and real-time problem solving with trained crisis counselors.

There is also a supplemental health benefit through The Trust, which serves players who have spent at least two seasons in the NFL, and which gives former players access to outpatient psychiatry and counseling services in their local communities. The Professional Athletes Foundation provides health tips and resources for ex-players.

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

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