There was a big hope that the San Francisco 49ers' top pick from the 2017 NFL Draft, Stanford defensive end Solomon Thomas, would have a breakout year in 2018.

It didn't happen, however. And a key reason was because of Thomas and his family losing his sister, Ella, to suicide in January of 2018. The loss affected Thomas significantly throughout the season, and Thomas reflected on how it hindered him over the course of the year to former 49ers reporter Joe Fann.

"If I did good on something, I wouldn't care," Thomas said. "If I did bad on something I wouldn't care. I really didn't want to be around anyone. I'd say whatever I could to get through the day. It was a dark hole, and it took me a long time to get out of it."

But now, Thomas is taking a more proactive approach, speaking up on the importance of mental health, not just among NFL circles, but across the country to help spread awareness.

Thomas was in New York last week on a tour with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and he had some poignant words relevant to anyone afflicted with mental health diseases.

"Some guys won't sit at the same lunch table as our team therapist, because they are like, I don't want anyone to think something is wrong with me," Thomas said at the conference. "I have heard guys say out loud, 'Oh, I can't sit at that table.' I'm just like, why? There's a huge stigma about that; people are still afraid of therapists, still afraid of getting help, because they don't want anyone to know that anything is wrong with them."

Last offseason, 49ers general manager John Lynch asked Thomas to seek help if he needed it.

"He could kind of tell, I was probably putting a mask on in front of my teammates," Thomas elaborated. "That was really helpful, really powerful for me, to have John reach out to me like that and help me continue to get mentally healthy and to continue my walk through my grief process."

Thomas met with a therapist once a week during the regular season, admitting it was tough to find the words or even where to start with his grieving process. Yet he admitted the impact these sessions made began to have a positive impact on him on the field, too.

"I honestly felt like I was running in sand sometimes, or running in mud," he continued. "Then just being able to feel that twitchiness again, that explosiveness. … That's all due to my head clearing up, or being able to freely live, I guess.

"I said one way I dealt with that was through therapy, and so I hope that motivates guys … Just trying to let them know that nothing's wrong with it. It's a good thing, it's for help. If guys do it more openly, and the culture of mental health changes in the NFL, I think that is going to change a lot."

Thomas is trying to prove he's a living example of how mental disease, pain and internal struggles can carry over into all aspects of life. Not just for players and persons going through such issues, but their families and loved ones, too.

He's not alone. One former 49ers player, now-Atlanta Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich, is also trying to relay the same kind of message after he went through his own difficulties following his retirement.

"You live in a culture for so long where it's not OK to be sad," Ulbrich said, via ESPN's Vaughn McClure. It's not OK to be vulnerable. It's not OK to ask for help. We've got to teach these guys that it is OK, that sadness is normal, and that anxiety is normal. Depression is normal, in a lot of ways. It's OK to ask for help. That's a sign of strength -- to ask for help."

If Thomas and Ulbrich get their way, the understanding of mental health and associated concerns will be at the forefront of not just the league's discussion, but across all society as well.

Hat tip to The MMQB's Jenny Vrentas for the find.

Writer's note: This is an important message for me, as I lost my wife last October to a battle with addiction, brought on by mental-health issues and the attempts to self-medicate them. It's OK to seek help, both for yourself if you need it, and those closest to you.
  • Peter Panacy
  • Written by:
    Peter Panacy has been writing about the 49ers since 2011 for outlets like Bleacher Report, Niner Noise, 49ers Webzone, and is occasionally heard as a guest on San Francisco's 95.7 FM The Game and the Niners' flagship station, KNBR 680. Feel free to follow him, or direct any inquiries to his Twitter account.