Former NFL player, Marcus Smith, speaks on men and mental health.

From the football field to the mental health field, Marcus Smith has broken down barriers both on and off the field and found a way to bridge a very sensitive gap in the process. Having played football at a professional level, Smith’s road to the NFL gave him a uniquely personal perspective on the relationship between mental health and black men. Even dating back to his childhood, Smith had defining moments that shaped his then belief of what “strength as a black man” should look like. Having had a suicide attempt while being at what some would consider the peak of his life, Smith knew two things at that moment; one was that having money and success do not equal happiness and the other was that it was time to take a break from the career that he had been so proud of in order to focus on his own mental healing. Little did he know that he was about to embark on a new chapter that would end up saving not only his life but the lives of many others that didn’t even know they needed him.

Smith opened up to us about his mental health journey from childhood to the NFL and his new project that is sure to change the way we look at mental health.

What was it that made you feel that the transition from pro football player to the world of mental health was necessary?

For me, it was a run-in with a suicide attempt and the community that we come from makes it taboo. We don’t talk about it enough. Being an athlete really gives the impression of having to be mentally tough, but what does that really mean? I had gotten to five years in the NFL and was dealing with high levels of anxiety reached a breaking point and wanted to kill myself because there was no real way to deal with anxiety and depression. I felt like there was no way to deal with it and I felt like couldn’t get out of it. I had a realization when I was tipping my car over an edge in Seattle. My wife called me first as I in the middle of that attempt and I rushed her off the phone and then her mother called me shortly after that and by the time I was done talking to her I was already at the bottom of the hill. As a Christian man, I couldn’t believe that I was about to take my own life. It was after that attempt that I went to Pete Carrol because I was playing with the Seattle Seahawks at the time and told him that I needed a break. I had to get my mental health together because it was either be healthy or die so it was then that I got into therapy and learned who the real Marcus Smith was. That is was drove me into being the mental health advocate that I am now.

Why do feel that black men have such difficulty expressing their feelings of brokenness or anxiety?

I think the number thing is where we come from. If we go all the way back to slavery and the things that we had to deal with as a people, it has been consistently traumatizing and that trauma is passed down and since we are taught that because we always have to be two to three times more than our counterparts, we are taught “it is what it is”, and that we just have to “get through”. That is not always the best advice in some situations because not everyone is strong enough to just push through. I think this is where anxiety and depression come in and then we pass that down to our kids. Also, there are times when, as men, we try to open up to our women and we get shut down. Especially as an athlete or a black man because we are just “supposed to be strong” and that response makes us feel pushed to the side. Now you have someone that has tried to open up emotionally that probably never will again as a result which leads to built-up emotions that never get expressed. Then, one day you hear that someone has died from suicide and it sounds sudden when in actuality they were dealing with things internally that nobody ever knew about. Also, men tend to look down on emotions as a weakness and this is another reason that we do not open up and not just men. Black people in general are expected to be strong.

How do you get people that have been conditioned to have walls up to open up to you? 

What has worked for me has been talking to people on a level that they can relate to and being open about the things that I have been through. I make them feel that they have a safe place to open up and not hold things in because what will happen when they do that is that it shows up in their relationships and they end up doing things out of frustration from holding things in. Even at my gym, I give the young guys an open floor to talk about things and make them understand that this does not make them weak. As a child, I suppressed things, I held them in. Even as a pro athlete in NFL, I still did not feel like I was good enough and it all goes back to feeling that way as a child so I approach people from a place of understanding where they are and where they are coming from. 

Talk to us about your new project, “The King’s Table” and the way it came to be! 

I met Jay Barnett through my mother-in-law and found that we have had some similar thoughts on some things. We were on the phone trying to figure out a way to reach those that are not being connected with. Statistically, only 6% of therapists are black and with us, we typically feel comfortable talking to someone that looks like us so we had to find a way to bridge that gap so we asked ourselves, “what is the best way to reach a large group of people”? TV! Some shows do a great job of talking about this but we want to do a show from a male perspective and to speak to those that may be lacking that presence in their lives. Jay came up with the idea for The King’s Table because we are kings and we need that representation. The details are still being worked out but in the meantime, we are working on a tour that will be coming very soon. It will most likely be virtual at first since we are still in a pandemic but it will be coming soon.

The dialogue about mental health in the black community has been being brought to the forefront more and more in the recent past with celebrities like Charlamagne tha God and Taraji P. Henson using their platforms to bring awareness to what has been a very touchy subject.  When we consider all of the deaths by suicide that are attributed to trauma and mental health issues and feeling that there is nowhere to turn to, it makes unaddressed mental wounds a silent killer. You can find and follow Marcus Smith’s mission to bring awareness to mental health, the amazing work that he does with the youth at his gym, and his upcoming mental health tour on IG.

Featured Image courtesy of Marcus Smith