NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall was no stranger to violence both on and off the field, at one point starring in the tabloids more than on the sports pages.
But all that changed for the Giants player in 2011.
“After a couple years of volatile behavior, I found myself at McleanHospital (near Boston), where I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder,” Marshall, 33, tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t have the skill set or tools a healthy person would have to self-regulate when something was off.”
Marshall says his reluctance to seek help came from the added pressure of being a football player. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, suicide is the third leading cause of death among African-American men ages 15-24.
“I definitely think there were signs when I was younger, but I was a product of a very volatile neighborhood with a lot of violence, drugs and unhealthy living,” Marshall says of his upbringing in Georgia and Florida. “What I was dealing with was nothing different than the rest of the kids in school. You have kids with emotional issues, kids with anger issues and kids that have many challenges — and I was one of them.”
Marshall and his wife Michi, 33, who holds undergraduate degrees in psychology and criminal justice from the University of Central Florida, where the couple met, have dedicated themselves to removing the stigma of mental illness. They hope to do so by raising awareness through their Project 375 foundation, which also funds no-cost training for Mental Health First Aid.
“Nobody thinks of an African-American male who plays football as having mental health issues. There are three things that can hinder someone from seeking help: Being a man, being African-American and being in a machismo sport,” Michi says. “It’s difficult to say ‘I need help. I am suffering.’ ”
These days, the couple are working on a variety of projects, including public speaking, addressing Congress and promoting Mental Health First Aid, an 8-hour course that introduces people from first responders to teachers to religious leaders about the warning signs of mental fragility. To date, more than 1 million people have been trained in MHFA.
“For him to come out and say ‘I’m Brandon Marshall and this is my foundation to help people not in a position to help themselves,’ is an empowering thing,” Michi says. “There’s no better platform than being an NFL player to do that and we are blessed to be able to use it.”
Approximately 6 million men are affected by depression every year. Men die by suicide 3.5 times more often than women and are less likely to seek help for depression, substance use and stressful life events.
“I used to think that mental health meant mental toughness and masking pain,” Marshall says. “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.”
Michi has trained more than 200 adults, including school administrators from Illinois’ Manteno High School. She was invited to the school after a student, Samuel Myers, committed suicide in Dec. 2016. Myers, 19, was a fan of Brandon Marshall and the family had asked that memorials be directed to Project 375.
“Our focus now is at the high school level. Our goal is to equip every school and leaders with this training so we are better able to help our kids more effectively and efficiently,” Marshall says. “Our training stresses intervention at an early age.”
Last May, Michi flew to Seattle to take teachers through MHFA training. Not long after, the Marshalls learned that a teacher attending the training had returned to class and explained to the students about the importance of speaking up about their mental state. He said if anyone needed to talk, he was there for them.
A student approached him after the class and revealed their intention to take their life that night, and showed the teacher bottles of pills in their backpack. Using the training he learned, he guided the student to see immediate help.
“That young person is alive because of the work done through Mental Health First Aid training,” Marshall says. “It doesn’t get any more powerful than that.”
Matthew Butte, the development director for the Children’s Center in Vancouver, Washington, saw the value of Michi’s training when she worked that Seattle session. That part of the country has been long plagued by youth suicides.
“There’s still a lot of stigma and a culture of silence around mental health, and when boys and young men have role models like Brandon, it helps,” Butte says. “And they provide the training for free.”
Butte says training sessions can often cost more than $100 per participant just to register, and is a lot of money for non-profits.
“It would be about $3,000 for us at that rate and that’s significant for a school and cost prohibitive for us,” Butte says. “And the Marshalls have removed that barrier. We have a tremendous amount of gratitude for them and their team.”
Michi and Brandon are currently involved in a campaign, “Be the Difference,’’ through the National Council of Behavioral Health that emphasizes that anyone can “Be the Difference” in the life of someone experiencing a mental health challenge. The PSA will air on Hulu this month.
“It was embedded in me as a kid to never show any signs of weakness,” Marshall says. “But you have to find the strength to pick up the phone and talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a professional, but just call someone and don’t hold it inside.”
Marshall remembers his three-month outpatient program at Mclean, sitting in the circle with five or six other patients. One girl had a bandaged arm with blood seeping out where she had self-harmed. Another young woman talked about trying to take her life. They all came from different professions and life experience, yet shared a mental illness diagnosis.
“After the session, we would all walk into the parking lot and go back into the community like everything is okay and we are okay – but we were not,” Marshall says. “In that moment, I knew that we have to put a face on mental illness and a voice for it, and I’ve been pounding the pavement ever since.”