Marcus Smith's Key to Staying Healthy? Starting Therapy.

The NFL linebacker opens up about his mental health journey and its stigma in the football league.

marcus smith nfl
Marcus Smith

As a football player with NFL experience, Marcus Smith has felt pressure on and off the field. Like many others around the world, he also feels the pressure when anxiety and depression take root.

The former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker recently chatted with Dr. Gregory Scott Brown, MD about his mental health journey, which Smith said began in childhood. Prone to anxiety attacks (often experiencing them in his sleep), he felt the weight of mental health troubles throughout college and into his career in the NFL, where it eventually developed into a five year bout of depression. After almost ending his life due to the internal pressure he put upon himself, coupled with not having the skills to talk to his family about his emotions, he chose to take a step back from football and get some help.

“My mental health is way more important than just the game,” he said, reflecting on that time. “I had to go seek help. I had to go get the help that I needed, and once I started to see a therapist, I started to figure out where all my traumas, my anxiety, everything that I was dealing with, where it came from.”

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But it was a long road for Smith to get to the point where he felt comfortable to talk about his feelings. One reason he thinks contributes to Black men not wanting to be vulnerable is based on communal mentality. “We as African-Americans have to work twice as hard to get where we are in life,” he said. “We oftentimes have the mentality of ‘we can’t be weak’... but what I started to find out was that by being vulnerable and talking about the mess that you’ve been through, talking about past traumas, is you being strong.”

So what was Smith’s key to becoming healthier? He began to see a therapist, who helped him realize his problems stemmed beyond blaming football for his issues. And though it was hard at first (his wife continues to join him in therapy sessions) he understood that in order to get back to the game he loves, he needed to take care of himself first.

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“It’s a stigma in the NFL,” he said about men being afraid to open up about their personal issues. “They’re often times quiet about some of the things that they deal with, because they don’t want the coaches to know… coaches will look at it as if he’s not mentally tough, and they want people already mentally tough in the NFL.

“What the NFL has to understand is that not everyone comes to the league mentally tough,” Smith continued. “If there is a safe space for them to go to and be able to speak their mind… it will help them just in general. And if they didn’t make the team, it wouldn’t be much of a barrier for them because they know their mental state is where it needs to be.”

But what about the man who can’t afford therapy or who’s afraid to take the first steps and get himself into a room with a therapist? Well, Smith notes that just finding someone who you’re comfortable being open with can have the same effects as a therapy session.

“Go talk to somebody. It’s okay to be vulnerable,” he said. “We are all strong men and we’re trying to build strong families. If we have to go seek therapy in order to do that, then that’s okay.”

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