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Courageous NFL players are opening up about their mental health issues in hopes it will help others

Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown acknowledged he had suicidal thoughts.Silas Walker/Getty

FOXBOROUGH — Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown sat down in front of a camera earlier this month and decided to open up about the suicidal thoughts and depression he experienced last season.

In a short video posted to his social media accounts, Brown acknowledged his nerves before publicly revealing for the first time he thought about taking his own life in November 2020, in the middle of his second NFL season.

“I had no more hope for better days and everything was just going wrong for me,” Brown said.

Brown admitted he didn’t think depression was real until he experienced it firsthand. In his caption, he penned a message about the importance of taking depression and anxiety seriously.


“Life happens to all of us, but you’re not too tough to talk to someone and get things off your chest,” he wrote. “Life is a beautiful thing and everyone should be able to live it to the fullest.”

Tennessee wide receiver A.J. Brown has been forthcoming when talking about his struggles with mental health.AJ Mast/Associated Press

Brown has since deleted the video, but his message remains. In a news conference last week, he reiterated the reason he chose to share his experience is to encourage others to seek help when feeling down.

Patriots tight end Jonnu Smith, who played with Brown for two seasons in Tennessee, called his former teammate’s decision to open up “a sign of bravery.”

“I think it’s bold,” Smith said Tuesday. “It’s unfortunate that we got that notion to not show emotions and hide our feelings as athletes because we’re supposed to be the biggest and baddest people on the planet. But we’re humans, too. We bleed just like everyone else.

“A lot of people deal with certain things at home, man, certain things, certain trauma that they dealt with as children. It’s good to talk to someone, to seek help, to admit those things, so we can get to the root and fix the problem so that people can have lives that they’re blessed with.”


Once considered to be a taboo topic and a sign of weakness, mental health issues have garnered more awareness this NFL season.

On Wednesday morning, law enforcement officers, team officials, and mental health professionals resolved a situation involving Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, who refused to come out of his home in fear of intruders. The 33-year-old Griffen, now in his 12th season, also missed five games in 2018 for mental health treatment.

Following Wednesday’s incident, Vikings general manager Rick Spielman advised other organizations to invest in players’ mental health to prevent potential tragedies.

“With the NFL putting a huge emphasis on mental health, along with our own club, we came up with a plan we felt very comfortable with,” Spielman said.

Earlier this season, two other NFL players, in addition to Brown, joined the growing contingent of pro athletes that have elected to speak up about the importance of mental health.

Following a three-game leave of absence in October this season, Philadelphia Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson released a statement saying he’s dealt with depression and anxiety “for a long time.” Johnson said he “worked hard” during his time away to restore his personal life, and thanked everyone for their understanding and support.

Lane Johnson is in his ninth season with the Eagles.Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

Later that month, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley announced he needed to step away from football indefinitely to focus on his well-being. Ridley had missed two games this season because of a personal matter.


Several players have since applauded Brown, Johnson, and Ridley for their willingness to discuss their struggles.

“I used to be a tough love guy,” Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs said Monday. “I feel like I had to take a step back from being that way because it’s not all about tough love. You kind of have to love up on people sometimes. You don’t understand how hard the battle is for them. Something that I can handle, somebody else might not be able to handle.”

Added Smith: “Mental health is no joke. I think the biggest misconception is that because we are athletes, because we sit on a certain pedestal, we’re not allowed to show those emotions and everything is supposed to be easy. Brush it off. I think, man, for a lot of guys, that’s the problem.

“People don’t really deal with their emotions, and I think that it just continues to weigh them down, weigh them down, and put them in a dark place.”

Earlier this season, Patriots second-year linebacker Josh Uche discussed his experience going to “a dark place” while dealing with an injury playing at Michigan. During his rehabilitation process, Uche thought to himself, ‘Man, this is a hard way for athletes to live.’”

“Athletes need a very accessible way to therapy,” Uche said. “It’s kind of something that’s stuck with me ever since the injury.”


Josh Uche is in his second season with New England.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Uche has now started a foundation with a focus on mental health and equipping athletes with the necessary resources. He has plans to develop an app specifically for athletes.

“Growing up as males, you’re always told to toughen up, kind of suck it up and stuff like that,” Uche said. “I’ve seen the NFL do a lot of different initiatives to make mental health a priority. I feel like the tide is changing, and that stigma is starting to soften up a little bit.”

In 2019, the NFL and NFL Players Association formed a mental health and wellness committee to develop relevant programs and resources for players, coaches, and other staff members.

The prevailing theme in many discussions? Don’t be afraid to talk to someone, whether it be a friend, family member, or professional.

Uche credited two of his college teammates, Khaleke Hudson and Chris Evans, for checking up on him, and Brown said Jets rookie receiver Elijah Moore, his college teammate, was the one who helped him through his struggles last year.

“Us as men, our feelings aren’t too much cared about,” Brown said. “Get things off your chest. It’s OK to talk to someone. Seek help. You have to take care of your brain just like you take care of your body.”

Nicole Yang can be reached at her @nicolecyang.