By Moryt Milo
Paraag Marathe, President of 49ers Enterprises and Executive Vice President of Football Operations, negotiates football contracts, maintains a competitive salary cap for the organization, and was charged with figuring out where to put a new football stadium. But when it came to his sister’s battle with mental illness, he was confronted with a situation that left him in the dark.
His parents immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s. His father was an engineer. His mother was a homemaker. They had two children, Marathe and his older sister Shilpa. He said life was good. He played sports, excelled in school, and family dinners were an evening tradition.
Shilpa began to struggle with her mental health from an early age. She had depression which led to anorexia. Over time, Shilpa’s mental and physical health declined and no one in the family knew how to deal with the illness. The subject didn’t exist in their culture.
“There was no acceptance or understanding of mental illness being a barrier. None of us understood it,” Marathe said.
The family denied that it stemmed from mental illness. They simply thought if she just ate, everything would be OK. But her health only became worse. The family went from hosting and attending parties and birthdays to closing ranks and isolating from friends and family.
“I am able to say it now after many years of reflecting, but my mom and dad and [I], we were embarrassed. My sister was so emaciated we didn’t want to go out in public, “Marathe said. “We would argue and convince ourselves it’s because we cared so much, but the truth is we saw it as a reflection on us.”
No Resources or Tools
The family struggled trying to find help. Whenever they took Shilpa to the hospital or a care facility, she was kicked out, deemed too much of a risk due to her emaciated condition, he said.
“It wasn’t that we loved her any less. We didn’t have the tools, knowledge, or resources to help her,” Marathe added.
Unable to deal with the pain of seeing his sister and accepting that she had a severe mental illness, Marathe compartmentalized his life. He blocked out his home life and chased his career to avoid anything that would make him unhappy. He let his career define him.
In 2005, Shilpa died at age 31.
Even after her death, Marathe said he kept moving at full throttle, until one day years later, the bubble burst.
“I said what am I doing. I was so focused on compensating and achieving my career that I was neglecting everything else,” he said. “It just hit me one day. It was just freeing and empowering. I just didn’t care about what happened in my career. I cared about who I loved and who loves me. Who I want to help and who helps me. That’s who I am. “
He wanted to feel his emotions and not bury the sadness and loss of his sister anymore. The awakening reset his sense of purpose and grounded him.
Lessons Were Learned
In the process of having this epiphany, four realizations rose to the top. Marathe now finds himself talking about it with whomever will listen.
- Sympathy and love: You can’t understand what someone is going through until you (genuinely) walk in their shoes. My sister was crying out for help and none of us knew how to help her. Instead of being empathic, we just saw it from our perspective. “Just eat and everything will be better,” that was our solution. What she needed was continuous love and empathy because she was struggling inside.
- Hearing and listening: There Is a big difference hearing someone and listening to someone. This doesn’t just apply to mental health. We all hear people but listening is very different. In our case, my sister was going to be better because within time she was going to eat some food and snap out of it. We weren’t hearing her cries for help. It had nothing to do with food.
- Helping someone: This is tiresome and it tries one’s patience. You can’t help someone for a while and then leave. That’s not the right way to do it. You can’t give up. You have to keep helping, even when you get tired. I wanted to help my sister but I would get frustrated. She’d take one step forward and two steps backward. I would leave and go back to school at UC-Berkeley and not come home for weeks. I didn’t want to deal with it. I have a lot of regret for not helping her in a more consistent way.
- Vulnerability: We all live in this world of catching perfect. There is no such thing as a perfect human being, and unfortunately that’s the way society is set up today—whether it’s Instagram or TikTok, or kids chasing perfect and trying to get into top schools or chasing our careers—who cares about all that. What makes us all special is we are imperfect in different ways. It’s OK to stand up and talk about things that might make you hurt or feel a little bit weaker. You are a much stronger person if you are able to stand up and talk about vulnerability.
Marathe now sees the world from a new lens. He has two daughters ages 5 and 8 and he plans to equip them with the tools and resources he never had and to teach them about being vulnerable. To teach them about empathy and love and what it’s like to walk a day in someone’s shoes.
He also recognizes that he has a role to play in ongoing mental health conversation. His life intersects with sports, men, and ethnicities coming from an immigrant family whose culture doesn’t believe mental illness is real.
“Men don’t talk about mental health. People in sports are all about machismo and ego, not showing any vulnerability. So, I came out and spoke more about it’s OK to feel weak. To feel vulnerable. It’s OK to feel hurt and maybe more people will listen and maybe there is someone out there that takes my advice and helps someone they love,” he said.
Paraag Marathe was the keynote speaker at NAMIWalks Silicon Valley 2023, NAMI-SCC’s annual fundraiser.