- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 14, 2011

Miami Dolphins wideout Brandon Marshall set the NFL record for most receptions in a game when he snared 21 balls with the Denver Broncos in 2009. He’s among the game’s top receivers, but this year he’s on a mission involving more than catching footballs.

He wants to catch men and women who live with his condition and help them to victory.

We sometimes use “brave” in describing athletes and their feats, and it’s almost always a poor choice of words. But Marshall recently exhibited a form of bravery that’s rarely seen in sports, especially in the testosterone-driven world of professional football. He did so in the wake of a personal crisis - his wife being cleared of charges that she stabbed him during a domestic dispute in April - but it wasn’t for personal gain.

“I am making myself vulnerable, and I want it to be clear that this is the opposite of damage control,” Marshall said two weeks ago during a half-hour news conference to announce he’s been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. “The only reason I am standing here today is to use my story to help others who may suffer from what I suffer from.”

Marshall’s long history of emotional outbursts and public disputes has overshadowed his productivity at times. He’s been no stranger to counseling over the years, either seeking it himself or being ordered by the NFL. But the sessions never answered his problem or alleviated his frustration.

He wasn’t properly diagnosed until a volatile 2010 season at home and work led him to Boston’s McLean Hospital earlier this year. That’s when he learned about BPD, a mental illness that’s actually more common than schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to studies, and marked by difficulties with relationships and emotions.

“My purpose moving forward is to raise awareness of this disorder and how it not only affects the patient but the families and the people in the community,” Marshall said. “My goal is to walk the halls of Congress to fight for the right help and the right coverage for this. To walk the halls of the National Institute of Mental Health to raise the awareness, because I have seen my life and how it played out.”

Medical coverage of BPD is spotty, and Marshall paid $60,000 for treatment - two reasons he wants the attention of lawmakers and officials. Even the mental health community needs better awareness of the disorder because it’s rarely diagnosed, often misperceived and usually a challenge to treat.

Marshall chose to put himself out front, knowing full well there would be skeptics, critics and doubters. A friend of mine hosts a radio show in Miami and aired parts of Marshall’s press conference. Numerous people called and declared the whole thing a sham to cover up past behavior. Some of the comments posted beneath stories online weren’t any better.

It reminds me of the reaction when former Oakland Raiders center Barrett Robbins disappeared two nights before Super Bowl XXXVII. An All-Pro center who previously had been treated for depression and bipolar disorder, Robbins was incoherent and unaware of his surroundings when he showed up Saturday night, physically and mentally unfit to play after a drinking binge.

Some of his teammates were total Neanderthals in their postgame comments, uttering cold, heartless and insensitive remarks. “For him not to show up is like spitting in someone’s face,” guard Frank Middleton said. Tackle Lincoln Kenney said “I don’t have any emotions toward Barrett Robbins.”

Mental illness is nothing to be taken lightly or joked about, although most of us probably have laughed inappropriately at some point. We would never do that if, say, Marshall or Robbins came down with a terrible, incapacitating disease. We wouldn’t blame them for being physically ill, yet they don’t get the same empathy for being mentally ill.

The stigma is thick and entrenched, but it’s chipped away a bit when high-profile athletes and celebrities step out. A certain amount of courage is necessary to put your career at risk, instead of going about your treatment quietly. But keeping the issue to yourself could cost someone else, who might be going through life unaware of what’s wrong or how to get assistance.

“I can honestly look you guys in the eyes and tell you if things didn’t happen exactly the way they happened for me with the program and McLean Hospital, then something else would’ve happened,” Marshall said. “The longer that borderline personality disorder goes untreated, the worse it gets - as you all have seen in my life publicly. I would have thrown away my career, and there was a good possibility, my life.”

Now, he’s trying to help catch others who might be throwing theirs away.

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