New York Giants' Brandon Marshall Talks Mental Health Advocacy

By Britni de la Cretaz 10/10/17

"When I walk away from the NFL, I want my legacy to be that I changed the way we approach mental health."

Brandon Marshall
Photo via Cpl. Jody Lee Smith/Wikimedia Commons

Brandon Marshall may not be having a great season on the field, but the wide receiver for the New York Giants is still making an impact in the community.

Marshall, 33, who suffered a left ankle injury during Sunday’s game, has been invested in breaking the stigma of mental health issues since he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) in 2011. He is now the Executive Chairman of Project 375, the organization he co-founded with his wife, Michi Marshall.

Two days before his injury, Project 375 hosted its Third Annual Celebrity Ping-Pong Challenge in New York City. The event is a ping pong tournament to raise money for children struggling with mental health challenges. “I’d love to win a Super Bowl. I’d love to continue to have monster years,” Marshall told the New York Daily News, “but when I walk away from the NFL I want my legacy to be that I changed the way we approach mental health.”

In 2011, Marshall spent three months receiving treatment. Before his diagnosis, he had run-ins with the law, a history of domestic violence, and was known for clashing with teammates on and off the field. “After a couple years of volatile behavior, I found myself at McLean Hospital (near Boston), where I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder,” Marshall told People last month. “I didn’t have the skill set or tools a healthy person would have to self-regulate when something was off.”

At a press conference shortly after he was diagnosed, Marshall said he wanted to be “the face of BPD” and to fight for insurance coverage and awareness of the disorder, saying he felt it was his mission. “Today I am making myself vulnerable to help others who suffer from borderline personality disorder,” he said at the time. His foundation works in schools and with youth, hoping to provide services and education about mental illness. Michi, 33, has degrees in psychology and criminal justice and has worked as a mental health technician.

“Nobody thinks of an African-American male who plays football as having mental health issues,” Michi told People. “There are three things that can hinder someone from seeking help: Being a man, being African-American and being in a machismo sport. It’s difficult to say ‘I need help. I am suffering.’”

People with BPD often demonstrate emotional instability, difficulty in personal relationships, impulsive behavior, and feelings of worthlessness. The disorder is also characterized by intense episodes of anger, depression, and anxiety, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Still, not much is known about the disorder, which can also present with co-occurring disorders like substance use disorder, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidality.

The causes of BPD are not yet clear, though genetic and environmental factors play a role. Many people with BPD report a history of trauma; Marshall has described himself as the product of a violent and volatile upbringing. New research out of Boston University has also found that playing football, particularly in youth, is correlated with greater risk of depression and behavioral problems later in life.

Research has also established the connection between tackle football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a traumatic brain injury that has been linked to psychiatric symptoms like depression, aggression, and suicidality. However, it can only be diagnosed post-mortem, at autopsy, so establishing a connection between potential brain injury and mental illness is a hard one to make.

“I used to think that mental health meant mental toughness and masking pain,” Marshall told People. “I was raised in a community where you didn’t admit to any weakness. As a football player, you never show weakness to your opponent. But when you think about it, connecting with those emotions is the real strength.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.