Why do so many former NFL players seem to have mental health concerns when they retire? Could we be doing more to address their emotional needs during their playing days, and if we did, do they have the tools to take action?

Former NFL player Derek Price became a doctor after retiring from play and now heads up Sierra Tucson, one of the nation’s largest mental health treatment centers in the country. He shares how these answers are not as straightforward as we think and discusses the struggles of returning military and retiring law enforcement and what he sees as a doctor.

Join us as today’s guest tells us about his story of leaving the NFL, the reasons behind the stigma surrounding mental illness, and his new program for first responders.

Dr. Derek Price

Derek Price is the Chief Executive Officer of Sierra Tucson, the award-winning Arizona-based mental health center renowned for its decades of success in treating trauma, anxiety, addiction, and chronic pain. Before joining Sierra Tucson, Derek served as CEO for American Addiction Centers, leading the 150-bed Desert Hope Treatment Center in Las Vegas.

Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Hey everyone, and welcome to the podcast. I’m your host Gabe Howard, and calling in today we have Dr. Derek Price. Dr. Price is the CEO of Sierra Tucson, a residential treatment center located in Arizona. But before that, he played in the NFL for the Detroit Lions. Dr. Price, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Derek Price: Hey, thank you, Gabe. I appreciate you having me on here.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Price, given how our society feels about sports and in particular, football, I want to ask what led to you leaving the NFL? And also, because I’m a sports fan, did you win a Super Bowl?

Dr. Derek Price: So, the short answer to that is not by choice. And no. So, I left the NFL with a career-ending spine injury. I went in and was playing and everything was going well, and I was getting on the field as a rookie and life was really looking good and ran down the field and hit somebody on a kickoff. Turned my neck sideways and broke some bones in my neck and tore some discs and nerves up and whatnot. Um, I was able to play through the next handful of games because I didn’t tell anybody. And that’s kind of the stigma that we’ll talk about later for sure, is that don’t be hurt and don’t tell people when you’re broken. And so, I played four games with a broken neck and then go home in the off season, sign another contract and come back. You know, in my mind I’m going to play again. And the doctors looked at me and they said, What the heck happened to you? Because all the muscles had atrophied, the nerves were crushed. And that’s when they knew there was a problem, sent me out, did surgery and came back with bolts and plates and screws in my neck. And the coach said, hey, I love you, but you’re never going to play this game again. Um, and that’s kind of what led me out of the NFL. And as far as winning a Super Bowl, no, no Super Bowls here. Would have loved to see in playoffs, but when I was with the Lions, we didn’t make the playoffs either. So, um.

Gabe Howard: Aww, you like answered extra.

Dr. Derek Price: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: I appreciate the honesty there. Right. I didn’t ask if you made the everybody listening could have been like, well, at least he got to play in a playoff game. So, I.

Dr. Derek Price: Yeah, well, you said Detroit Lions, so they’re going to know the answer to that one.

Gabe Howard: That, that’s good points. [Laughter]

Dr. Derek Price: I wouldn’t be able to pass that one past them. Get them past them.

Gabe Howard: There’s so much in your story that that I’m sincerely want to know about. But the biggest one is you said you hid a broken neck. How did you hide it? Aren’t there team doctors everywhere that are supposed to look out for you and keep you safe? I just can’t imagine a broken neck is one of those things that they missed on an x ray or during a physical.

Dr. Derek Price: Well, um, let me put a little context around it. So. So first of all, we have to remember that this is like 96-97. So, we’ll run it back, you know, quite a few years. Technology is a little bit different. Contracts are different, more of a mercenary mentality. Meaning, um, if the season is 16 weeks long, you get paid 1/16 of your pay check, your contract for each week of the regular season. So, if you got cut week eight, then you got, you know, half of your total paycheck or half or whatever. So, it’s very mercenary. If you’re not on the field. Like you can’t make the club in the tub mentality. If you’re not out on the field, you’re not going to be on the train. And the very real truth behind it is a guy at my talent level is replaceable by a thousand other people that just didn’t have the right opportunity. Now you take like the Barry Sanders of the world and the all-pros, you know, they’re just different. They’re God touched and it’s a different caliber. But 90% of the NFL, there’s thousands of college football players that could have filled those spots but just not in the right place at the right time.

Dr. Derek Price: And admittedly, I was one of those guys. I was lucky to be their guy, in my opinion. And when I got hurt, made the decision like if I go and tell the doctors I’m hurt, if I tell the trainers I’m hurt, if I make anything out of this, I’ll be on the next home and somebody will be in my spot and my life dream goes away. So, I’m just going to suck it up as we’ve been taught from peewee football on. Rub some dirt on it. Don’t say anything about it and get in there and keep playing and just deal with the pain and pretend it’s not really happening.

Gabe Howard: I don’t think there’s anyone listening that would think to themselves, just give up the money and protect your health. And that’s what’s sort of sad. That’s why I framed the question this way. As I was listening to you talk, I was like, Well, that’s a lot of money. I’d lie for that. But

Dr. Derek Price: Mm-hmm.

Gabe Howard: At the same time, you could have been paralyzed. You could have been injured, you could have been killed, you could have been I

Dr. Derek Price: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: When you say it that way or when you think about it that way, it’s like, wow, you were willing to trade safety for money and this is your physical health. But I want to frame it against mental health. People are willing to risk their mental health for zero money almost every day. And by zero money, I mean not NFL money. How does this all fit together in your mind? Because you have the unique position of seeing the stigma, of having physical health problems and the stigma of having mental health problems up close and personal.

Dr. Derek Price: Yeah. So, and thanks for teeing it up like that, Gabe. And I think that the overlay here is if, if I can overlay my experience of pro sports and the NFL side and then move to a more macro and look at societal, the stigma. I’m going to draw some parallels. So, let’s start at the sports level and the individualistic side. Yes, I had a problem. I knew I had a problem. I didn’t tell anybody I had a problem because I didn’t want anybody to know that I had a weakness because even the other players on my team that were in the same position, were trying to take my job away from me so that they could be on the field. So, any weakness, any like any dent or chink in the armor is going to be exploited at that level by not your opponents on the other teams, but by your own team and then by the administrative staff whose job it is to win football games and keep healthy horses out there. So, I didn’t want to be put out to pasture, so I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t tell my roommates; I didn’t tell anybody. Now let’s overlay that into society. And you’re talking about people with mental health issues. Well, as soon as you put your hand up and say, I have an issue, you can be viewed as weak or crazy or psychotic or you’re just you’re just reduced from being the whole person to a stereotype or a label. And it’s really because the illness of mental health is invisible. If you break a bone, I can take a picture of you. You know, Gabe and I can say, hey, listen, your bone is broken right here. Do you see it? Yes, I see it. Yes. I’m gonna put a cast on you. The whole world knows that that cast is set for a bone that we can all see is broken. And you’re going to get sympathy and empathy for having broken your arm and the pain that you must endure. And it’s very obvious and very visible and very objective. Oh, you have anxiety and depression? Well, I can’t take that out and put it on a table and show it to somebody. I can’t take a quantifiable, objective picture of it.

Dr. Derek Price: That’s an assessment of a human being’s reactions and answers and how they respond to the world around them and how they perceive it. And that’s invisible. And the problem is because it’s not objectified and we can’t see it, we don’t know what it is. If you don’t have depression, it’s very hard for you as a as a regular layperson to understand what it is like. Because, you know, when they’re when they’re having a bad day, he’ll find something to make you happy and you can do that.

Dr. Derek Price: But when you’re talking about like a physiological chemical reduction to the state of a clinically diagnosable depression, you don’t just get to say, oh, I’m just going to be happy today. It’s like walking up to somebody that’s in a in a pond of cold water and saying, just be warm. They’re like, well, I’d love to be warm, but I’m having a hard time getting there. If you’ve never broke your arm or tasted chocolate ice cream or smelled a rose, how do you explain what that feels like or smells like or tastes like to somebody else? The same thing is it’s virtually impossible to truly relay that to somebody who doesn’t have that disease because their perception of what depression is or their perception of anxiety is thousands of times lighter than what you’re experiencing. And thus, people hide it. But they hide it because they don’t want to be labeled. Well, let’s go back to the football. Let’s say that you’re an all-pro football player and you’ve won all these Super Bowls and you’ve been on posters and Wheaties boxes and your picture is you’re up on the walls and every time you went to work, if you think about it, 100,000 people get on their feet and clap for you as you enter your work office.

Dr. Derek Price: Which I found when you’re done with the NFL, nobody gets up and claps for you when you walk in the room. It’s a different thing. But if that’s the world that you live in. You raise your hand and say, oh, I’m an alcoholic. Well, unfortunately, that’s how the world and the news and the media and the fan base is going to. Now, all of the good just got reduced to a label. You’re an alcoholic. It doesn’t matter how many Super Bowls you won. Those guys don’t want to come out. They don’t want to let you know that they’re weak. They built their brand on being tough. In the event that they say that they have a problem, it they can be reduced and all of their good can go away. And then when you go to the societal side, nobody wants to have a stereotype or a label or, you know, put on them. They want to be the whole person. They want to be. You want to be Bob, your neighbor, not Bob, the crazy guy. They want to be Sally, your friend or the person you see at church or the CrossFit gym or at work. They don’t want to be the alcoholic. And as such, they hide. And that’s what we need to get switched around, is for the world to accept the fact that there is a stigma. We all live in it. And heck, I’ll tell you what I’ll give you. I will prove it to you right now. If you’re driving down the street in your car and you look over at a crosswalk, you’re at a stop sign, you look over the crosswalk and there is a kid, shaved head in a gown with a walker, looks weak and sick to you probably has like cancers, bald head and he’s having a hard time crossing the road.

Dr. Derek Price: Just doesn’t have the strength to really do it. I would say 99.9% of the people listening to this are going to say, oh, I would absolutely pull over and help him across the road. He’s suffering from an illness. I have empathy. I have compassion. I have humanistic characteristics to help my fellow man. I’m going to help this person. Okay, let me change nothing but the illness. Now you’re looking at a homeless person. You’re looking at somebody with a psychosis. You’re looking at anxiety and depression. You’re looking at PTSD. You’re looking at alcoholism. You’re looking at drug addict. You’re looking at homeless person. You pulling over your car and helping them across the road? The answer is absolutely not. The answer is I’m going to look the other way. I’m going to pretend I don’t see this. I’m gonna walk around it. I’m gonna give it a wide berth. I don’t want to get engaged with it. And I’m going to dismiss it and move on. Move on. Well, because that’s subconsciously how we’re all programed currently. When you yourself suffer from one of these mental illnesses, you yourself know the stigma that lives within you of how you placed it on other people before you were diagnosed yourself. And you do not want to come forward with that.

Gabe Howard: I’m still I’m still super drawn to all these athletes who are they’re on top of the world and then they fall. And there’s a voyeuristic aspect to it, right? We as a society love to watch people fall. It’s sick

Dr. Derek Price: Mm-hmm.

Gabe Howard: And it’s sad, but it’s nevertheless true. But I’m also thinking, you know, we’ve seen a lot of people from the NFL fall. Where are the safeguards? Why is nobody protecting these people? Is anybody sitting down all the athletes and saying, look, all right, you’re going to be a player today and maybe you’ll be a player for a year, maybe you’ll be a player for ten years, but eventually you will not be a player anymore. And here is how we are going to safeguard your mental health. Is this being done? Are there any safeguards in place?

Dr. Derek Price: A big question, so I’m going to take it in chunks. Um, first and foremost is if you’ve had teenagers, if you’ve had the 19 to 23-year-old human beings in your life, most of the time they’re not ready to hear a message. Remember to play this game called the NFL and to run around with the most violent, athletic and explosive specimens on planet Earth, you have to create an aura around you of invincibility, or else you simply couldn’t get on the field. You simply cannot until you’ve been around the guys that play this game at the highest level, you don’t know what real athleticism and strength and violence and power feels like. You might assume it, but you just don’t know. So, imagine, like if you’re going to step on that field, you have to have self-talk in your head that you are infallible, you’re invincible, and nothing can permeate you. And even hearing the discussion of, hey, when you’re done, you might have mental health issues. Well, first of all, when you said, when you’re done, I already cut you off because I’m going to play this game forever, right? That’s what you that’s when you’re playing. That’s what you think until you’re ten, 15 years in, nothing’s ever going to stop me. No injuries are going to come my way. I’m going to work my butt off. Nobody will ever cut me. So, at the beginning of your sentence, I already stopped listening. At the end of your sentence, when mental health issues. Hey, listen, I’m a I’m a 19, 20-year-old multi-millionaire driving a Ferrari dating a Kardashian.

Dr. Derek Price: Um, yeah, maybe that’s down the road. Next. Next topic, please. Not even not concerned with it. I’m 23 years old, flying private jets, so it’s not it’s not the right time right now. You say that to like, a 50-year-old person. They’re like, oh, whoa, time out. Yeah, slow down. Let me let me let me make sure I have everything lined up and my insurances and where I go and my resources and my plans. And when you’re at that age, you don’t hear it.

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the CEO of Sierra Tucson and former NFL player, Dr. Derek Price.

Dr. Derek Price: Now, I do think the NFL does a pretty good job of educating. I do think the NFL does a pretty good job of allocating resource. I get emails from NFL Alumni Association and from the NFL Players Association constantly saying, hey, if you have mental health or diabetes or overweight or prostate checkups, etc., and there’s a lot of resource, but how many people follow up on it? I don’t know. And I don’t think it’s very much. Um, we also have come to learn that, you know, concussions, TBIs, closed head injuries that we experienced in football that we experienced, you know, in war around explosions that we experienced in the ring. When we get hit in the head, boxers and MMA fighters, soccer players, that those concussions can also lead to mental health issues because you’re damaging the brain. So different areas of the brain get damaged and different areas of the brain don’t work as well, and thus psychosis, anxiety, depression and mental health can come forward.

Dr. Derek Price: And that’s kind of that can be a slow process. And that’s I think if you watch the movie, I believe Will Smith, it was called Concussion, kind of lays that out where you have a Super Bowl ring. A guy won multiple Super Bowls living out of the back of his car, you know, eating glue. Like and he knows he’s going crazy, but he can’t stop it, you know? So, it’s, um, it’s rough. I do think that the, the sports leagues are, you see commercials every now and then. I think the NFL used a tagline last year during the Super Bowl called kick the stigma or tackle the stigma. Um but does do people really know what that means and do they dive in on it? Yeah, not as much. I know what it means. You know what it means. People listening to this probably know what that means, but most other people are just kind of in one ear, out the other one. I do think they do, they do well. I think they could do better. Um, what I wish they did was provide, you know, insurance if you play this game after you leave the game so you can go get the help. They can point you to the help, but they’re not paying for the help. Be honest, you’re a commodity. When you’re when you’re able to play, they pay you. When you’re not, your kind of done. Um, and that’s sad because there’s plenty of money to cover that. But still, capitalism, they’re not doing it.

Gabe Howard: As we’ve been talking, I see so many parallels to the US military or law enforcement or first responders. Maybe not so much with the you know, this is capitalism and there’s money, although I would argue we have a fascinatingly huge military budget. And you would think we could set some aside for our soldiers.

Dr. Derek Price: [Laughter]

Gabe Howard: And I know this is the most awkward transition in the world to go from NFL to soldiers, law enforcement and first responders. But here’s why I ask. Something that you said was you’ve got a, you know, an 18, 19-year-old and you’re just like, ah, that’s never going to end. You’ve got an 18, 19-year-old and you’re like, look, I’m doing this now and I’m invincible. If you think that you’re invincible when you’re playing a sport, you must really think you’re invincible if you join the military or if you’re law enforcement or if you’re literally a soldier. I mean, they must really build them up. That that transition has to be even more difficult. And of course, they don’t have millions of dollars or fame or people chanting their names or at least a team name they’ve been associated with. What happens to them? Is there? Again, full disclosure, most awkward transition in the history of podcasting.

Dr. Derek Price: No. This is.

Gabe Howard: But if we can’t help NFL players, can we help soldiers at all?

Dr. Derek Price: Yes. So, we actually here at Sierra Tucson, we run a program specific for what we call, you know, we call the red, white and blue, and it’s a first responder military program. So, police, LEO, fire and paramedic. And to your point, it has to be a groundswell from within. Like when you’re the alpha soldier, when you’re the Navy Seal, the Army Ranger, when you’re Delta, CAG and Green Beret, and there’s like a folklore and a mystique about you and you’re out there doing your job and then you rotate back. Um, what people forget is the PTSD isn’t just what you saw on deployment. More often than not, when we drill down, we’ll find that the trauma, abuse or issues that happened to that person is what caused them to join the military. And that when they’re in the military, they were distracted and they didn’t mind going downrange and they didn’t mind pulling triggers against bad guys. But when they got out, they were disconnected from what I told you earlier, was that locker room mentality. Their tribe of brothers, their purpose, their mission, their reason evaporates and they try and transition to become, I don’t know, stocking shelves at Home Depot, you know, working at the car, like whatever the job is, trying to find a regular job. But they’ve lost their reason, they’ve lost their tribe, they’ve lost their mission. They sustained some injuries. They saw some stuff. And now, you know, what happened in their previous life prior to military is still compartmentalized, but it’s bubbling up because there’s not enough, you know, pressure to keep it down.

Dr. Derek Price: And so, we label it, you know, oftentimes as PTSD. Oh, they were, they were at war. Must be PTSD. But when you really drill down on it, a lot of these guys will find the recovery when they go back into their childhood and they see what happened to them then. When they realize that they’ve lost their reason. And that’s where you see a lot of veteran suicide. They lost their purpose. They lost their tribe. They lost their mission. And so, what we do and most of the other high-quality groups is when we bring them in, is we reconnect them and we want to teach them a how to take care of themselves and how to fix their issues. And, you know, if you are fire and police or military, we have programs for you where you can be around your brothers and come to that tribe again.

Dr. Derek Price: Is. That’s what you miss, right? And we take for granted the PTSD that policemen see because we think of PTSD like, oh, they had to shoot a bad guy. Well. Think about the firemen. They’re not shooting bad guys, but they’re pulling bodies out of windshields and out from under cars and out of lakes and out of burning fires and the screams that go along with it. My daughter is the youngest female firefighter ever in the state of Arizona. Very proud of that. So, my daughter is a full-blown firefighter. And the stories that she tells me is why I have her seeing a therapist. Um, I kind of view it like it’s like brushing your teeth, right? You don’t wake up in the morning and say, hey, my teeth hurt, I’ll brush them today. You say, hey, I’m going to brush my teeth so they don’t hurt. And so, as such, I encourage all people that live in that, LEO, fire, paramedic, do some mental health hygiene. Like talk to a counselor once a quarter, once a month, once a week. Once a year. But at least do it a little bit, right? Like, don’t wait for the bad to happen. Don’t swallow it all down.

Gabe Howard: As we continue with the most awkward pivot in the history of podcasting, I want to ask, do you feel that your NFL experience and transition is equivalent to veterans’ transition experience as it pertains to mental health?

Dr. Derek Price: Absolutely. Absolutely. Unequivocally. Absolutely. Yes. And I and I’ve had the, um, the great fortune of being around quite a number of, of these guys and seals and doing different events for the last 15 years, um, at a high frequency pace. And our conversations are they miss being on that train, they miss being with that group of guys. They miss their inclusion into the fraternity when they were in the program. And if you talk to pro athletes, it’s the same thing. We all miss the field, we miss the games, we miss the crowd to some degree. But what you really miss is that group of guys that you bled with in the summer that you sweated with, that you went to war with, that you shield the shield arm to arm, those guys. And that’s the same on the on the athlete side as it is the military. And when it comes to an end, um, everybody on that team still loves you. But you’re not getting the phone call to hang out anymore. You’re not going on the missions, you’re not playing the games, you’re not going to the Saturday practices and you find yourself in a bit of like an isolation and going, hey, what happened? Like my whole life I was celebrated. I was with these groups from the age five years old. If you’re an athlete and now you’re 25 and you’re just you got cut, you’re not playing the game anymore. And that train with all those players is still is still going. But it’s gaining distance. It’s going away from you and you find yourself kind of alone there.

Dr. Derek Price: And that brings on the depression and the isolation and the drinking and the bad choices and all the things that you’ve alluded to earlier. And the same exact thing happens on the military side and the same exact thing happens in the fire station. Like my daughter knows all of the people that she’s on her fire group with. She knows their husbands and wives and their children, their pets, names like. And someday she’ll retire from that. And infrequently in life do you have that tight of bonds with that large of a community. And if you’ve never had it, like you may not understand it, but if you’ve ever been in a group that was really tight knit and gave you energy and you fed into it and it fed you and it fed your purpose and it was everything was aligned. Yeah, it sucks to give that up. It hurts to give that up and it’s painful. And you see that you see that in the military. And you know, a concern that I have is 2001 was a little more than 20 years ago. And a lot of these guys are spending 20 years in the military. They’re retiring now. They’re getting out. They did their 20. And ah, we set up at this point in time on a mental health framework here in the country to take care of all these vets that are retiring that did their 20 and they’re out after 2001 event. The answer is I don’t know. I don’t know. But I know that we’re doing our best over here.

Gabe Howard: Dr. Price, where can folks learn more about you and about Sierra Tucson?

Dr. Derek Price: The best way is you know SierraTucson.com. We are a specialty hospital within the Acadia Healthcare system. Acadia Healthcare being the single largest behavioral health group in the country. Very proud of that with an amazing staff that I totally believe in their in their mission and the corporate structure. So SierraTucson.com is where you’ll find our resources. If you want to follow me personally, I’m an open book, as you can probably tell from this interview. Follow me personally if you have questions. DM me personally. @DerekCPrice is my Instagram. Ping me there. Email me. Call Sierra Tucson, get me on the phone. You know, I give my number out to everybody and people say you’re going to get a thousand calls. I get few calls, but the calls matter. And I love to take them. So that’s how you find me.

Gabe Howard: That’s awesome. Thank you once again for doing this.

Dr. Derek Price: Of course. Thank you.

Gabe Howard: Oh, you are very welcome, Dr. Price. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard and I’m an award-winning public speaker and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which is on Amazon. But you can grab a signed copy with free show swag or learn more about me over at gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is 100% free and hey, can you do me a favor? Tell folks about the show, put it on social media, send an email. Hell, send somebody a text because sharing the show is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

Announcer: You’ve been listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast from Healthline Media. Have a topic or guest suggestion? E-mail us at show@psychcentral.com. Previous episodes can be found at psychcentral.com/show or on your favorite podcast player. Thank you for listening.