Brandon Marshall, Mental Illness, and Making It All OK

Brandon Marshall begins the quest to raise mental health awareness in the toughest place there is: the NFL.

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Sep 7 2014, 11:00am

Photo by Mike Dinovo/USAToday Sports

Brandon Marshall, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Chicago Bears, has a mental health disorder. Specifically, borderline personality disorder (BPD), a vicious and frequent emotional oscillation that can lead to instability in relationships, work, and thought processes. It is not one of the oft-fetishized and self-appointed disorders—some forms of mental illness being perversely desirable in popular culture, romanticized afflictions in the vein of aloof, cruel genius and functional addiction. In the NFL, where admitting even physical damage to the brain was long thought to be a shameful sign of weakness, to have someone of Marshall's status be forthcoming about an invisible, non-trauma induced brain issue is borderline miraculous.

There could be perhaps no more difficult, and populist, an institution for the mental health community to take on, and that is what makes Marshall's open conflict such an important one

"I think when most people think about mental illness, they think in the margins," says Louie Correa, CEO of the Brandon Marshall Foundation. "They think about the person who is in crisis; the homeless guy on the street that's harassing them, the person that walks into a school and opens fire. That's what they're thinking of, but that is such a small percentage of what we're talking about here."

After being diagnosed with BPD in 2010, Marshall, wanting to, as Marin Cogan wrote, "become for mental health what Magic Johnson is for HIV," co-founded the Foundation with wife Michi.

Correa is in the conference room of the Brandon Marshall Foundation's fourth floor Ohio Street offices just north of the Loop. The Foundation's offices are airy and minimal, all wood and glass and exposed brick. A massive chalkboard outlines the Foundation's mission: "The way people think about mental health is CRAZY! That's why our mission is to end the stigma attached to mental illness, advocate for unprecedented awareness, connect those suffering to resources, and paint the world lime green." Reflecting off the various lustrous surfaces is the lime green accent wall, the color of mental health awareness impossible to ignore.

As screaming as that shade is, those living beneath it struggle in silence. "The Brandon Marshall Foundation is focused on creating unprecedented awareness," Correa says. A large part of that awareness is driving people away from their ingrained perceptions, from fearing those suffering on the fringes of society, and ignoring the struggle which undoubtedly fills their homes and offices.

"One in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in the year," Correa says. "Tomorrow maybe there's things that are off for me and I sink into depression. That's not just possible, it's almost likely. So we have to shift people away from thinking about being in those margins … this is something that we can be proactive about."

Here is where irrefutably successful people like Marshall come into play. For one to rise to such heights while living with BPD sends the message that not only can people with mental health disorders function, they can do so at the highest levels. Making Marshall even more uniquely suited to the struggle is the physical perfection required of his career.

"That is one of the greatest opportunities that we have," Correa says about Marshall's prominent place in our athletic landscape. "So many people see mental illness as weakness, and we have one of the toughest, most macho, largest people that you'll ever meet—he's in a class of his own—and he's willing to be vulnerable and talk about this."

Photo via Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Charming and handsome, Marshall is not an immaculate champion, what with a litany of transgressions trailing behind him—including, most disturbingly, alleged bouts of domestic violence, one of which involved his apparent stabbing—but he may be the perfect one, especially as his run-ins with the law remain greatly reduced post-BPD diagnosis.

According to figures commissioned by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006, prisoners with mental health disorders account for more than half of the population in state and local jails (they fall just short of half in Federal lockup). They are also more likely to be repeatedly incarcerated-—one-third in comparison to the one-fifth rate of psychologically healthy inmates—as well as qualify as substance abusers, have recently used illegal substances, or been previous physically and/or sexually assaulted in the past.

In seemingly extricating himself from so dark a trend, Marshall covers himself a patina of grace. Redemption narratives, in reducing people to paragons, are fraught with peril. But they are admittedly romantic, dramatic, and potentially inspiring. It's easy to view Marshall's efforts as such.

What makes the Brandon Marshall Foundation—and its namesake—unique is the confluence of embattled, partially-saved figurehead and fight. A man perfectly suited to placing upon his shoulders the struggles of centuries of misinformation and fear has shoulders broad enough to do so publicly.

***

Across the Dan Ryan Expressway from U.S. Cellular Field lies the Bronzeville campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where Distinguished Professor of Psychology Patrick Corrigan is the lead investigator for the National Consortium on Stigma and Empowerment, the only body in academia funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to study the effects of stigma on mental illness.

"Some say stigma is a bigger problem for mental illness than the illness itself," Dr. Corrigan says. "It has three different effects." According to Corrigan, the highly stigmatized atmosphere surrounding mental health disorders leads to discrimination, shame, and a driving away from of the proper avenues for treatment, and the problem is potentially getting worse.

"Analysis used to show, that the majority of the time people with mental illness, in the entertainment media, were represented as psycho killers," Corrigan says. "That's getting better, but the news media, for better or for worse, tends to equate mental illness with dangerousness."

Stigmatization, in addition to shaming the mentally ill from seeking treatment, also prevents help from reaching those who are not ashamed.

"That's called structural stigma," Corrigan says. "We used to have a problem in the United States with what is called a 'lack of parity.' So traditional healthcare would cover physical health illnesses much better than it would cover mental illness." Reforms in the past decade—including the Affordable Care Act—are slowly instilling parity in the healthcare system, but results have been uneven and slow.

The federal research budget for mental health, Corrigan says, is pitiful in comparison to all other illnesses; this is despite the reams of research suggesting mental health disorders are among the most crippling of afflictions when left unchecked (which, again, social stigma helps to ensure they will). "The impact of mental health disorders on the population is greater than any physical illness, including heart disease, cancer … these are numbers that the World Health Organization is publishing."

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, facing a supposed budget crisis despite funneling millions into mayoral controlled tax increment financing slush funds, closed down a number of mental health facilities, many on the city's poor West and South Sides. Mental health care is seen, somehow, not as a priority, and its proponents and dependents are easy to ignore.

"Everybody is willing and delighted to have walks for breast cancer or ALS … but people are less likely to hold up mental illness, schizophrenia, as something we should be out there supporting. People get on the news, 'oh, they're just whacko people,' who's going to consider them?"

In Corrigan's mind, there is only one way to surmount the overwhelming stigmas, institutionalized and culturally ingrained, and that is through "coming out," being open as Marshall has been. "What we know is that education is not the way to fix it," Corrigan says. He points to the rapid gains made by the LGBTQ community as an example; hearts and minds were not won by teachers and classroom materials, but by men and women coming out and putting faces to issues.

This reversal would have a massive impact on thousands of lives, as treatment of mental health disorders—widely considered, in one of our most damaging populist myths, as impotent —actually has as high a success rate as treatments for physical illnesses. Depression treatment, for example, is as clinically effective as hypertension treatment.

Over a long-term, 30-year study of people with schizophrenia, Corrigan says, one-third were found to have gotten "over it," eventually showing no more symptoms; one-third were, like diabetics, able to manage and live their lives with constant, but effective care, and one-third were struggling mightily in the stereotypical schizo sense, although even then many would lead normal lives if they had access to the expensive medications and therapies they require.

Contrary to popular opinion, the means to help those with mental health disorders exist; it is their availability that is the problem, in no small part due to stigma.

"Coming out is the single most powerful way of changing stigma," Corrigan says. He himself lives with depression and anxiety.

***

I have a mental health disorder as well. Specifically, bipolar disorder, which is one of the oft-fetishized and self-diagnosed ones, and, hyper-specifically, rapid cycling bipolar disorder, which means I move amongst the various and extreme mental/emotional states which comprise the disorder's spectrum—mania, hypomania, depression, and mixed—with a frequency far outside the norm.

In my case, I may begin the week unable to get out of bed, convinced I am worthless, untalented, a blight, a literal waste of precious existence deserving not even of death, as death begets recognition. I could hit hypomania by mid-week, looking well rested and cheerful, incredibly productive, and with a disposition approaching the happy bee's industrious ideal.

However, the mania may come, and I will escalate intoxicatingly above hypomania, above egotism and rise, like Icarus toward the sun, to deification—capitalize My pronouns!—and become hazed with delirious grandeur. I desire—no, require—laurels upon My temples and temples upon My ground; I am the greatest writer who has ever lived, the most intelligent man on Earth, Napoleon crowning himself.

Then comes mixed, in which I am confronted with all the horrors of depression gifted with the terrible exigency of mania. Voices float in from empty rooms and shadows crowd my periphery. I am of the opinion that most suicides attributed to bipolar disorder happen during mixed episodes, due to plaguing hatreds animated by vicious energy.

Such weeks are very long, but I have never missed a deadline through fault of my own.

***

Which is to say that Marshall is not alone. Correa says other athletes have reached out to him, pulling him aside before or after games both to offer their support and seeking help with their own disorders or someone else's.

Nor is Marshall alone in his attempts to rout stigma; roughly 200 Harley-Davidson riders, organized by Starved Rock Harley-Davidson in Ottawa, Illinois, in conjunction with the Foundation and psychiatric treatment foundation Linden Oaks, put their own considerably tough image to the cause in May.

"We managed to raise about $10,000," says Starved Rock operations manager Erin Vandervelde, a lifelong Bears fan who has family members with mental health disorders. "I think Brandon and Michi [even beyond the couple, the Foundation is very much a family passion, with Marshall's brother working there as well] were surprised when they saw all the bikes," Vandervelde says. This roaring procession of tattoos and beards was an all-out diametrical opposition to the hidden, shamed lives many with mental health disorders lead.

From the conference room window, Correa can look down on a stretch of River North shot through, in what must be coincidence but seems like providence, with lime green. Right across the street are the offices of NoStigmas, a nonprofit focused on raising mental health awareness and suicide prevention. "Someday," Correa says, "there is going to be a map and this will all be lime green, the most mentally healthy place in the nation."

As Marshall and Correa take aim at society, Vandervelde has seen Marshall's impact first hand in the life of a family member with bipolar disorder. "He thinks it's the coolest thing in the world that somebody as famous and talented as Brandon will stand up and talk about it," she says. "That makes it OK."