The Stigma

It was 2011 and I was in a group therapy session at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. It was an informal self-assessment session where you were basically supposed to tell the group about what you were feeling and talk about what had happened to you the day before. We were all sitting in a circle. To my right, there was a young lady with bandages on her arms, and the wraps were soaked in blood. She had tried to harm herself the day before. Another young lady told the group that she had attempted suicide the night before.

I just sat there, in shock.

We worked our way around the room and everybody told their stories. There was an insurance broker, a social worker, a college student — normal, everyday, good people. Not all of their stories were as intense as the two young ladies’, but each person was facing similar struggles.

And there I was — this big, macho football player — listening to these people talk about their feelings and not knowing how to react.

This was an outpatient session. When it was over, everybody stood up, walked out to the parking lot and got into their cars. Everybody had just told these hard-core stories about the struggles they were facing, and now, one by one, they were each pulling out of the parking lot and going back into society like everything was O.K.

I remember stopping my car at the edge of the parking lot, watching the other cars pass by on the street and wondering how many of the people in those cars — and how many more in this country — were facing similar issues and suffering in silence. Hundreds of thousands, I thought. Maybe millions.

I decided that I wasn’t going to remain silent. I had the revelation that it was my purpose to help bridge the gap in the mental health community, and football was my platform to accomplish that.

I didn’t just feel like it was my obligation.

I knew, without a doubt, that it was my purpose.

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When I first heard the term “mental health,” the first thing that came to mind was mental toughness. Masking pain. Hiding it. Keeping it inside. That had been embedded in me since I was a kid. Never show weakness. Suck it up. Play through it. Live through it.

Now, I realize that mental health means the total opposite.

I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2011, which is why I was in the outpatient program at McLean. I remember the doctors there gave me a pamphlet on BPD, explaining the signs and symptoms, and I started highlighting the things I had been feeling. By the time I was done, the whole damn pamphlet was yellow.

The best way to describe BPD is that it’s an emotional disorder that affects a person’s ability to cope with and control their emotions.

I’ll give you an example.

In 2009, during my last season in Denver, I was depressed. There were days when I would just sit at home in my theater room in the dark in a catatonic state. I never wanted to leave my house, and if I did, I wore a hoodie up over my head because I didn’t want anybody to recognize me. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. At the time, I didn’t know that I was depressed, and I had no idea how to deal with it. So I hid from the world.

I thought that I was trapped in that catatonic state because of my relationship with my coach, Josh McDaniels, and the fact that I was due for a new contract and the Broncos weren’t coming to the table with the deal that I thought I deserved. (Now, looking back, I wouldn’t have given myself a contract either. At least not until I cleaned up my act.)

So when the Broncos traded me to the Dolphins in 2010, and I signed a five-year, $50 million contract — the richest ever for a wide receiver — I thought that everything was going to be O.K. I had the security and stability of a long-term deal. What reason did I have to continue to be miserable?

But my depression followed me to Miami.

Sometimes I would go days without talking to anybody. When my brothers and sister would come to my house, I would say hi to them and then just sit there. They would stare at me like, What’s wrong with you?

I have a beautiful wife, Michi. She’s stunning. Absolutely gorgeous. I’m not saying that to brag. Believe me, I know how incredibly fortunate I am to have her in my life. But there was a time when I couldn’t even look her in the eyes and tell her how much I loved her, or that I thought she was the most beautiful woman alive. I felt all those things, but I couldn’t process them. So instead of showing her or telling her how I felt, I just didn’t say anything at all.

That’s how I was for my entire first year in Miami.

Then, in 2011, I had multiple friends and family members who spoke up and told me that they thought I needed help. So I decided to go the the McLean Hospital and undergo a clinical evaluation.

That’s when I first heard about BPD. When they diagnosed me, I just … exhaled — like the biggest exhale of my life. It was just a huge relief.

I was like, O.K. Now I know what this is.

The next step was to treat it.

Back when I was in Denver, people knew me as a guy who caught a lot of balls, and who also got into a lot of trouble. On the field, I was a Pro Bowl receiver. But off the field, my life was spiraling out of control. I made a lot of headlines for the wrong reasons. Today, I really don’t talk about that stuff very much. I don’t hide from it, because it’s a part of my story. I just don’t focus on it because I don’t find that to be productive. My life is about today and how I can help people moving forward.

So if you want to get into stuff that happened years ago — the headlines, all the bad stuff — you can Google it. It’s all out there.

The point I want to make is that I’m still the same exact person today that I was back then. I still have the same feelings and emotions.

The only difference is that now, I know how to deal with my emotions the right way.

I spent three months in the outpatient program at McLean, and in my time there, I learned the tools and skills to help me cope with my emotions. I learned different meditation techniques, and I spoke with doctors and counselors about what I was feeling to get a better understanding of where my emotions were coming from and how I could most effectively react and respond to them. I learned to self-regulate. I was able to get to the root of things that had been holding me back for years, and it allowed me to unlock my true potential.

It was extremely difficult, but also very rewarding. It was a phenomenal experience.

Those three months changed my life.

When I was in the McLean parking lot that day, watching the cars go by, I thought that there were probably hundreds of thousands — maybe millions — of people out there suffering in silence.

The number is actually closer to 100 million.

One in five Americans experience a mental illness in a given year. That’s around 65 million people. (If you account for the friends and family members who are indirectly affected, that’s more than 100 million affected by mental illness each year.) And of those experiencing mental illness, nearly 50% don’t seek treatment, either because they don’t know what they’re suffering from or because they don’t know how or where to get help — or even that there is help.

But 30% of those suffering will choose to not seek help because they are concerned about confidentiality and the negative perceptions of others.

The stigma.

Think about it: Suicides and violent crimes make for front page news. When those kinds of things are linked to mental illness, it contributes to the popular perception that people suffering from mental health issues are either a danger to themselves or to others. We mostly hear only about the dark side of mental illness. We rarely hear about people with mental health issues who are nonviolent, or who are suffering in silence. We don’t hear about the person sitting at home, just wishing he could tell his wife that she’s beautiful and that he loves her.

That’s why I’m dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health.

I always say that football is my platform, not my purpose. I believe my purpose is to serve as an example for people who are suffering from mental illness — to show them that it’s O.K. to seek help.

Much of that work is done with Project 375, the foundation I started with my wife.

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For anybody who has ever successfully sought and received help for mental illness, they likely had something bigger in their lives that motivated them to get help and get better. Something that saved them.

Michi saved me.

If she hadn’t held me accountable — if she hadn’t loved me, hadn’t shown compassion during my weakest moments, I would have probably lost everything. My football career, my wife … everything.

Now, I’m going into my 12th NFL season, ready to fight for a Super Bowl with the New York Giants. I have two beautiful children and a healthy marriage that I know I wouldn’t have if not for Michi’s unconditional love and support. To me, my wife and my children are my world.

Today, I write in my journal daily and I often speak publicly about BPD and mental health, sharing my story in hopes of giving others the courage to seek the help they need. When I speak, there is one passage from my journal that I often go back to:

My pain and sadness give me my strength.

My strength ruins my mind, body and soul.

I’ve been trapped all my life.

Not by man or cages

But by my own emotions.

Where I’ve been by traveling inside myself

Can be summed up by one word —


Pain manifests itself into peace and growth….

Only when you deal with the root of it the right way.

I wrote that after a two-hour session at McLean with my doctor, Dr. Gunderson. I have changed the wording a bit over time, but the essential meaning of the passage is the same: My emotions had been controlling me, and I was trapped — not by anything external, but by things that were inside me. But I couldn’t be the one to help myself. I needed to seek help.

That’s why I share my story every chance I get.

To give people the courage to seek help.

To raise awareness.

To break the stigma.

Today is the last day of May — the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month. But that doesn’t mean that after today we should stop thinking about mental health and the impact it has on our society. My goal is to continue to raise awareness. The mental health community is basically where the cancer and HIV communities were 20 years ago. And look how far they’ve come?

We can get there, too.

We need to accept that mental illness is a disease, and that like any other disease, the research is key to fighting it. We need more robust education in schools. But most of all, we need to break the stigma.

When my NFL career is over, I will have left a legacy on the field — one that hopefully includes a Super Bowl ring. But my most enduring legacy will be my contributions to the mental health community.

And we have a lot of work to do.

Project 375, founded by Brandon and Michi Marshall, is passionately dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health by raising awareness, implementing training and improving care for our youth. To learn more, visit project375.org.