What Social Security Can Learn About Mental Illness From Former Chicago Bear Brandon Marshall

April 28, 2015

After Walter Payton, Brandon Marshall, the just-traded wide receiver, is my Chicago Bears hero. But I guess that he needed to be let go by the Chicago Bears, because apparently there was a widespread suggestion that his behavior was too disruptive. He is my hero to the extent he did something quite courageous and unusual —he acknowledged head-on his mental illness known as “borderline personality disorder,” a condition for which his foundation appears to try to help. Guts.

BPD is a very poorly understood and debilitating mental illness. I have never been able to forget the time when a Social Security claims representative joked about a homeless suburban woman who made several applications for Social Security disability in Elk Grove. The “joke” was to the effect that this poor woman allegedly kept “rolling the dice for government cheese.” To him, this meant that she made several applications for disability benefits that he found to be trivial, based upon an illness that he saw simply as “not the life of the party.” Like many within SSA and the pundits in the media, the claims representative misunderstood things, and did not see BPD for what it is —a debilitating, complicated medical problem. It’s not easy to treat, and it can often yield intractable problems which leave a person terminated from jobs, directly or indirectly.

The minute I heard about Marshall and his acknowledgement of his struggle with this tough illness, I knew fireworks had to be in the future unless he was faking the existence of the medical problem. And BPD is not the kind of thing people fake, right?

We don’t claim to know the particulars of Brandon Marshall’s situation or the basis for complicated professional football decision-making, but Marshall had and has extreme talent, and was traded and lost his job with Da Bears. His mental health problem may have an impact on a very lucrative career. But what happens to SSDI claimants when they have BPD? They have none of Brandon’s pass-catching skills; instead they may be CNAs, push a broom, or work heavy construction. Employers are far quicker to refuse to hire them, with bad or nonexistent references. But one does not get SSDI based upon the hiring practices of employers. Job losses regarding someone trying hard but failing due to symptoms of BPD — now those are an important element in a Social Security disability hearing. Just like the details about the Brandon Marshall saga are unique and prone to misunderstanding, those of each and every SSDI claimant are as well.

SSA has a very knee-jerk reaction such that the answer to any random psychiatric illness — BPD or otherwise — is that the person will be fine with what I abbreviate for them as “OIPS.” SSA suggests the given person will be fine with sustaining employment, so long as the person only has magical “occasional interaction with peers and supervisors.” The image of a locker room comrade in arms would seem to be at the opposite end of the OIPS spectrum (lots of interactions are necessary to be a critical teammate). But without Brandon Marshall’s speed, deceptive route running, leaping ability and great hands (so no pro football), how would his particular illness jive with competitive employment? One does not know without knowing about BPD in general and his situation in particular.

People love to hear the phrase “fighting for clients’ rights.” Our clients need smart lawyers who find, understand, and explain facts. We can’t catch, but finding and explaining important facts is our passion!