Football and masculinity dominate life in Texas. Feelings and emotions in men are tied to a rigid ideology – you don’t show or talk about them because men don’t do that. Likewise, men across the country may have lived under the same social norms that restrict them from showing emotions other than anger. Former Vice Chairman of the Houston Texans, Philip Burguieres said, “I felt that I couldn’t talk about depression, because it seemed like admitting to weakness, or failing.” He further elaborated on this stifling mentality by saying that it is “really hard for…America to accept depression for what it is: a disease.” This fundamental flaw in consciousness reinforces the stigma that men face – if and when they experience a mental health crisis.
This is why it was a breakthrough that George W. Bush signed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. This bill requires insurance companies to provide mental health services at the same capacity as it does with physical well-being services to group health plans offered by employers. Two years later, the Houston Texans became the first team in the NFL to offer mental health parity to their players and personnel. This happened largely in part because of Burguieres’ bout with depression. It was the first time pro-athletes were offered mental health services under their contracts.
Former running back for the Texans, Arian Foster, candidly contrasted the difference of using mental health services at his disposal to destructive self-soothing mechanisms. Foster was crumbling under the duality of growing up with domestic abuse coupled with periodically not having enough food to eat. As an adult, he stumbled into the depth of “mo’ money, mo’ problems”, the pressure that players signed to pro-sports teams face, plus career threatening injuries. To cope with the complexity of his internal pain he damaged himself inwardly by heavily relying on drinking because he could not express himself outwardly. He found this “was extremely powerful.”
Contrarily, he added “the emotions that you numb you can’t be selective with… you also numb everything good. So I was blocking out a lot of love.” Blocking out love cost him greatly because it ended his first marriage. This downward spiral alongside falling prey to the stigma of asking for help, “it just got to a point where I just threw my hands in the air and I was like: ‘This is going to kill me.” The weight of his emotional and mental issues took a toll on him; however, he adds, “I went and got help and it was the best decision I ever made.”
Mental and emotional disorders can manifest as a culmination of unresolved childhood issues that cross over into adulthood, others have a genetic predisposition to them, or others have both environmental and genetic vulnerabilities to mental disorders. The point is that the range of depressive, personality, anxiety, dissociative, eating, obsessive, substance use, sleep, sexual dysfunction, etc., mental disorders of any kind carry the capacity to self-destruct a CEO of a football team, pro athlete or regular person. Mental disorders are part of a collective human experience. In that sense, we can mirror the Texans and work through our feelings by owning up to them rather than let them diminish the sense of self and will to live.
Surprisingly, it did not cost the Texans more money to cover mental health. Burguieres said, “We have found no increase in our costs for mental health parity… It’s pretty simple. People who have access to mental health programs are healthier employees.” This revelation was highlighted by the reality that serious mental health conditions totaled more than $193 billion in lost earnings per year before the 2008 bill. Sick leave and absenteeism impacted team expenses more than covering mental health costs.
Football players are revered for their physicality, intellect on the field, and their remarkable performances that defy average human force. It takes a lot to make men of this caliber admit that they are overwhelmed by feelings and emotions, but in doing so they are paving the way toward a greater social consciousness. Real men in Texas or anywhere are strong enough to confront issues that cause them emotional distress. In the words of Mr. Rogers, “if we… can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable we will have done a great service for mental health.” The example the Texans have set will help usher in a new era where mental health and mental health services are no longer taboo. People who need help can get the type of care that they deserve to preserve their sense of dignity and self-worth.
In loving memory of Philip Burguieres and Mr. Rogers.