The fog enveloped Carolina Panthers receiver Torrey Smith, thick and disorienting.
It was late September 2012, and Smith’s younger brother, Tevin, had just been killed in a motorcycle accident. And the dark parts of Smith’s mind, created by a stressful, single-parent childhood during which he helped raise Tevin, were stirring.
“I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t eat. Was losing weight,” Smith said this week. “It probably was depression. ... It might seem weird to say that, but when you think about what they say it is, and the moods, the fog. ... I experienced all of those.”
Smith said he leaned on his wife, Chanel, and sought therapy. He also had the support of one of his Ravens teammates, former Panthers receiver Steve Smith Sr.
Nobody knew that Smith Sr., a hero to many on the field, was battling his own demons. But in August, Smith Sr. wrote an essay that detailed his history with anxiety and depression, which he kept a secret from teammates and coaches throughout his career.
Most NFL teams have a dozen doctors and athletic trainers to aid with every bruise, cut, sprain or break, but mental health issues often go overlooked in a culture that stresses physical toughness.
Many times, the battles within the mind are hidden, and many who suffer stay silent.
“We are often told as young men that it’s weak to cry,” Torrey Smith said “It’s weak to show emotion, and to just get over it. ... As men, it’s something where we don’t like to talk to people about our issues because we come off as insecure. Weak.
“And that’s actually the furthest thing from the truth.”
The Carolina Panthers want to change that culture within the franchise.
After the team was purchased by billionaire David Tepper this summer and the organization began making personnel decisions, many, including head coach Ron Rivera, advocated for more mental health support for the players.
So Carolina made an investment in that area.
The Panthers hired Tish Guerin, 35, this week as their director of player wellness, making her one of the first in-house psychological clinicians in the NFL.
Open to being open
Guerin (MSW, LCSW, LISW-CP, DCC) is a Charlotte native with psychology and sociology undergraduate degrees from Winston-Salem State and a master’s in social work from the University of South Carolina. She has a passion for people.
“I always knew I was going to do this,” she told the Observer this week. “I didn’t know in what capacity, but I knew that I was going to be working with people.”
“I hope that everyone will see the benefit of having someone full-time on staff who the players can use as a resource. The hope is that you’ll see fewer issues or recurrences off the field. The hope is that anything that could have been taking them out of their head for the game (will be gone), because they’re talking to someone about it and working through it. ... My hope is that I’ll be over-utilized.”
Guerin pitched the idea of an NFL team creating a position for an in-house clinician two years ago, to a contact at the NFLPA. Teams usually hire out contractors with private practices, but Guerin thought having someone within the franchise would create more trust with players.
She plans to build upon programs that were already in place under former Panthers Director of Player Engagement Mark Carrier, a former player who was promoted this summer to assistant to the general manager, but she’ll also create new ones.
She said she wants to foster an environment that’s “open to being open,” and a culture that normalizes mental-health check-ins as routinely as player physicals.
“It’s going to be imperative that I hear from (the players): What is it that you need?” she said. “What do you feel like you’re missing? In terms of your emotional and mental health, what are you doing to take care of yourself?”
Because everybody is dealing with something.
An individual approach
In Carolina’s locker room — like all the others in the NFL — almost every player is likely to have had some sort of upheaval in his life, from everyday stress to adjustment to the league and the pressure of the job to serious trauma and loss.
“There are many stresses related to this game that our players face, whether it is from their past or making the team or performing at a high-level week in and week out,” Carrier said this week. “There is a lot of pressure going through those things.”
Even Rivera has been touched. His older brother died of pancreatic cancer just before the Panthers began training camp in July 2015. There was not much time to mourn during Carolina’s run to the Super Bowl, so after the funeral, he blocked it off in his mind as the season ran its course.
But five days after Carolina lost to Denver in the Super Bowl, Rivera’s grief caught up with him. And he broke down.
“There are times where you can’t turn it on and turn it off,” he said earlier this month. “You really don’t have a chance to grieve. ... It’s a tough moment. But while other things are happening, you have to be able to continue.”
Everybody has something. But on game day and throughout the season, they all must compartmentalize. That’s where Guerin can help.
“I think that a lot of times people forget that the warriors you watch on Sunday are also human,” Guerin said. “They can have depression. They can have high stress — and of course, the job itself is high-stress. But are they dealing with it? How are they dealing with it?”
Guerin’s role is to help people in the organization handle all of it in a healthy way.
“You are always going to be in a transition in your life, whether it’s a new city, a new team, retiring, becoming a rookie,” she said. “They’re all things that require you to be able to navigate in an area you were unfamiliar with.
“And that’s really my goal, is to help people, help the team through those different points in their lives.”
Guerin will also work with players’ families as needed.
“The help and resources that these young men can get from Tish is going to be remarkable,” Carrier said. “She brings a different perspective, because of her background, that very few people can provide.
“Honestly, it’s just invaluable what she will bring to this organization.”
Ending the stigma
Big-picture, Guerin wants to help end the negativity associated with the words “mental illness” or “mental health,” especially in a hyper-masculine environment.
“When people hear the words ‘mental health,’ they sometimes think ridiculous things,” she said. “Mental health can sound very taboo. But what it is is working with someone so that you can work through all of your issues — things that are frustrating you, bothering you. Things you’re thinking about.”
She’ll have advocates within Carolina’s locker room, and not just Torrey Smith.
Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey was the former Stanford roommate of San Francisco 49ers defensive end Solomon Thomas, who lost his sister, Ella, to suicide in January. Thomas has been a fierce advocate for mental health and suicide prevention in the months since, and McCaffrey has followed Thomas’ lead.
McCaffrey said the Panthers locker room is open to both giving and seeking help.
“I know in this locker room, if anybody were to have an issue mentally I can’t think of one person who wouldn’t be willing to help them,” McCaffrey said. “You never would have thought something like that (with Thomas’ sister) would happen. But it’s common in all different classes, all different races, religions. Whatever it is.
“I just encourage anybody who is going through it to talk to somebody about it, and do what you have to do to get it off your chest. To seek help. Because it really is important.”
And Guerin hopes players will speak honestly and publicly about mental health issues, in hopes of breaking the stigma.
“My goal in this position is to drop the veil of shame,” Guerin said. “There is no shame in this. Everyone in the world has problems that they’re going through. They have triumphs, pitfalls. Peaks and valleys.
“Everyone has something.”
And more voices can help clear the fog.
“I think the more people talk about it, the more normal it becomes,” Smith said. “The reality is, everyone struggles. Being in the limelight doesn’t protect you from mental illness or mental issues. Being rich doesn’t protect you from mental illness. ...
“It’s important to talk about that.”
The number for the National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.