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Bears’ Marshall helping to destigmatize mental illness

Chicago Bears receiver BrandMarshall addresses an audience during forum mental health policies thmarks 50th anniversary President John F. Kennedy's signing

Chicago Bears receiver Brandon Marshall addresses an audience during a forum on mental health policies that marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's signing of the Community Mental Health Act, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, at the JFK Library and Museum in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

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Updated: October 23, 2013 11:03PM



BOSTON — Brandon Marshall wove past rows of trees, firecrackers of red, peach and burnt orange, and into the yellow building of the top psychiatric hospital in the country.

Upstairs at the McLean Hospital administration building, he stopped to say hello to old friends, to thank them for their help.

He was an outpatient there for three months in 2011, treated for borderline personality disorder.

On his way out the door, he scribbled a friendly note for a woman whose office was empty, placing it on her desk.

Three hours later, dressed in a gray plaid suit, black tie and a green bracelet given to him by Patrick Kennedy’s young stepdaughter, Marshall walked into the ballroom at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

In his world of mental-health awareness, it was the Super Bowl.

Or, as Vice President Joe Biden said, the World Series — with the real one down the road.

“It’s the who’s-who in our world,” said the Bears wide receiver, whose Brandon Marshall Foundation raises awareness for mental illness. “It’s everyone. It’s overwhelming right now.”

Biden and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius spoke Wednesday night to launch the Kennedy Forum, which former Rep. Patrick Kennedy founded to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his uncle signing the Community Mental Health Act.

The irony wasn’t lost on Marshall: a room filled with discussion about mental health, a topic few feel comfortable speaking about.

“We’re here celebrating 50 years of progress,” Marshall said. “This is the last piece of legislation John F. Kennedy signed. But it’s still a taboo topic. That’s disturbing because it affects all of us.

“None of us wants to talk about it. We’re afraid. We need to take it from a taboo topic to an everyday conversation.”

Marshall did that two weeks ago, wearing lime-green cleats during Mental Health Awareness Week.

His foundation received more than 100 donations, from $5 to $10,000.

Marshall estimates the attention was worth at least six figures.

“That was a huge stage for us,” Marshall said. “Not just advertising, but creating conversation, creating dialogue, about something that affects all of us.”

Brandon Marshall Foundation CEO Louie Correa, Marshall’s guest at the forum, said the goal is to make the foundation “the Livestrong of mental health” — only without Lance Armstrong’s embarrassing finish.

The room Wednesday was a good place to start.

Marshall — who spends two days a week, minimum, in his foundation’s Chicago office — was giddy with excitement.

“They’re the right people to really help us get to the next level,” Marshall said. “Our goal is to be the pre-eminent foundation in the mental-health community.

“This is my purpose. This is not something I’m doing for attention, something I’m trying to do to make myself look better. I’m really trying to be a servant to our community.”

Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman, president of the American Psychiatric Association, said a celebrity speaking about mental illness has tremendous weight, especially when encouraging people to seek help and talk openly.

“Apart from government funding for research, it’s the most valuable thing you can have,” he said. “It is essential and enormously valuable in terms of destigmatizing mental illness and encouraging people who need it to seek care and facilitating access to care.

“This is somebody whose profession is based on machismo being courageous and fearless. And to acknowledge they have some psychological vulnerability, which is the reality, is really extraordinarily heroic.”

There were times, Marshall said, when we looked at his football skills as something that served only him.

That’s changed, he said.

“Is it for me?” he said. “Or is it to use those skills for something like this?

“When you have a purpose, when you know your purpose, it’s stimulating.

“It’s fulfilling. There’s no better feeling in the world.”

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

Twitter: @patrickfinley



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