This second segment of a two-part series focuses on defining a mental health advocate who can quell the stigma associated with mental illness. Read the first segment here.
The dire need for a stigma-defying mental health advocate is especially critical given that individuals with such illnesses continue to struggle with pursuing and obtaining proper psychiatric treatment. On October 24, Brandon Marshall, Miami Dolphins wide receiver and two-time Pro Bowler, spoke of his desire to become the “face of Borderline Personality Disorder”, a mood disorder characterized by patterns of unstable interpersonal relationships and impulsivity. In his speech given at Harvard University, Marshall explained how he wants to defeat stigma and reach out to people with mental illness.
Can Marshall actually fit the bill of mental health advocate? Understanding the potential role Marshall could play requires a more thorough understanding of the deep roots of stigma inherent in greater society.
Stigma exists on a grassroots level. During the American asylum era, the primary propagators of stigma were institutional; the U.S., for instance, had a large network of asylums that dehumanized patients more than they cared for them. Now, a ubiquitous standard about what constitutes “normal” behavior for the average person indirectly creates stigma towards the “abnormal”, which is nearly as harmful as the early 20th century asylums.
It may be impossible to quell the natural repulsion we have towards “eccentricity” or “oddity” that is characteristic of those with personality disorders, simply because we are not used to interacting with people who are different. For mental illness, repulsion from deviance is magnified because the differences of those with mental illness are mysterious and not well understood. This reaction is innate and seemingly impossible to eliminate without a change in cultural norms. Despite this, Brandon Marshall has sacrificed his privacy in order to improve conditions for those with mental illness.
However, maybe the focus should not just be on scientifically understanding mental illness or reaching out to those with mental illness, but on raising awareness among everyday citizenry about ways to support those with mental illness. Although our understanding of neurobiology is still developing, treatment options have largely improved over the past decade. The bigger problem in the United States is not poor treatment as much as it is getting a patient to be treated in the first place. When introducing Marshall, Dr. Paul Barreira, Director of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling at Harvard College said, “I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and it is STILL stigma that prevents people from getting the help they need.”
The suicidal, depressed, and substance abusers, should not have to fear repercussions they will face if they come out with their problems. Jobs, careers, and friends should not be at stake. Marshall has helped further progress in these areas. He has proven to the world that someone can be open about mental illness, and, despite fears and hesitations, can receive proper treatment and ultimately improve his or her life. In his speech, Marshall frequently referred to his “circle” of close family as being the most important thing in his treatment process. They are what led him to become, as he puts it, an “ambassador in mental health.” The more circles that we can create, the less people have to be afraid.
How do we break down stigma?
We only hear about the dark sides of mental illness, which builds on the stigma that makes people lash out against the “dangers” posed by the mentally ill. Suicide makes the front pages; psychotic behavior makes headlines – the attempted murder of Representative Giffords, the tragedy of Columbine, and the Virginia Tech shootings all come to mind. We hardly hear about success stories of those who open up about their mental illness and positively capture public attention and approval.
Brandon Marshall finished his speech at Harvard to rounds of applause and smiling – an indication of the support and acceptance the mentally ill can receive from their communities. He spoke personably. He laughed with the audience. He put his notecards down, and spoke from personal experience. Stories like Marshall’s are the ones people need to hear about; these stories will change the stigma surrounding mental illness globally.
 Marshall, B. (24 October 2011). Mental Illness Isn’t a Game Stopper: A Conversation with NFL Star Brandon Marshall. Speech presented at Emerson Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.