Providing a Path for Mental Wellness with Derek Price

October 26, 2023

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Derek Price is CEO of the famed Arizona mental health treatment center Sierra Tucson. A former National Football League tight end who played with the Detroit Lions until his career was cut short by a severe neck injury, Price has also served as CEO of Desert Hope Treatment Center in Las Vegas. As a former professional athlete, Price has witnessed first-hand the toll that depression, anxiety, and trauma can have on people who, from the outside, appear to have it all.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian. I’m so honored to have with us today, Derek Price. He’s the CEO of Sierra Tucson. Welcome to the Impact Podcast, Derek.

Derek Price: Hey, thanks for having me on, John. The way you announced me, man, I thought I was coming to your arena. Let’s get ready to go. This is going to be great. It’s game time, but I appreciate you having me on here today. Thank you.

John: Of course. We’re going to talk a lot today about all the important and impactful work that you and your colleagues at Sierra Tucson are doing with regards to mental health and mental health awareness and getting people on the right track and changing lives. But before we get into that, talk a little bit about Derek Price. Where’d you grow up? How did you get in this journey? You’re an ex-NFL star. I was a huge fan of yours when you played in the NFL and you’re running one of the most premier rehab centers on the entire planet. Please share the journey with our listeners and viewers before we get talking about Sierra Tucson today.

Derek: Sure, man. I’ll give you the 30,000 foot view and you tell me where you want a little bit of gravity or granularity. I’ll start with I never had an aspiration to sit in this chair and do this work because I didn’t know about it. But that’s the end of the story running to the beginning. Football was a means to an end. I grew up without a father, sadly, as the oldest boy, so I was the latchkey kid. For those people that don’t know what that means, it’s a different environment. You let yourself out, you let yourself back in. Helping out with the paper out in the third grade to put some food on the table for the family and basically got to college because I did well in school, but I did well in athletics and athletics paved the way and gave me scholarships to go. Football was my job to do that.

Ends up at University of Iowa, full scholarship there, graduate from University of Iowa, go to the NFL, do the Detroit Lions and I look back on it now and I think I have more appreciation now for the experience than I did at the time. At the time, it was, I’m a player in a game, this is great. But I look back now and I look at the lessons and I can dissect it and it’s helped me. I do a lot of coaching outside of here and personal growth, and it’s really opened a lot of doors for me on how I got to where I am. Without sounding egotistical, I’m using my own journey to try and teach lessons, which is weird. It’s like, “Hey, I don’t want to talk about my successes because it seems so ego over the top”, but it’s the only journey I know and can speak authentically about.

John: That’s right.

Derek: Football happens, and I love it. Yeah, I played with Barry Sanders and did all that, and it was great. He’s better than whatever you think he is. He’s a better man and a better football player than anything that you could possibly have perceived from an interview or from film. I break my neck with about four games left to go in a season, and I felt like I was in the lucky to be there club. I wasn’t first round draft pick, they weren’t selling my jersey in the stadiums or online. Crazy thing was, John, there was no online back then, if we can go back to that. I didn’t have my Instagram because there was no such thing as Instagram. But anyway, so I break my neck, and all the pain was referred to my shoulder, and I had lightning bolts.

But basically I thought I’d done something to my shoulder and feeling like I was in the “lucky to be there club” and back in those days, if you were cut, that was the end, there was no guaranteed contracts it’s not how the system worked. I sucked it up and kept it to myself and played through the next four games. Probably didn’t make things any better. I go home in the off-season, I come back to the first training camp, I’d signed another contract. Things are going well. as a rookie, I played a lot. I was starting in games, it was really well. When I showed up, I’m 270 pounds, and my right arm, my non-affected sides, 19-inch arm just looks like I lift weights and eat cows all day because I did. My left arm was, like, 11-12 inches around and just shaking, and the muscles just doing the fasciculations, fibrillations and twitching.

The coaches took a look at me, and they’re like, “What is that?” I was like, “What is what? What are you talking about?” From there, straight out to a spine surgeon that actually changed the trajectory. Like, we all have points in our life where you’re going down path A, and then potentially unexpectedly, you hit a crossroad, and now you’re going a totally different direction. I go to a spine surgeon who shows me my neck and shows me the lack of curvature and says in just a very passive comment to me, like, “Hey, do you know, had you gone to a chiropractor, you probably wouldn’t have this problem. You had lost the curve in your neck, and when you kept hitting people, there’s nowhere for the shock to go, so it just exploded.”

That’s the stuff that particular chiropractors can do, is help restore that. Well, my family is a lot of medical doctors, uncles, aunts, cousins, whatever, so I’d always heard their approach on what medicine should and shouldn’t be the more of an allopathic approach. I dismissed the idea, and as a matter of fact, I made a comment like, “Are you going to put like, chicken blood on my shoulder or maybe a crystal in my ear? In joking manner. It was one of those, again, definitive moments in your life where this world class esteemed doctor stops in his tracks, puts his clipboard down, like, takes his glasses off, and looks at me and says, “That is an ignorant statement.”

Puts his stuff back on and walks out of the room. I was like, I thought I had offended him. I didn’t know what had just happened. Anyway, surgery happens, I’m laid up for a long time wearing my neck brace and all that kind of stuff, and I go back to the camp, they check me out. The attorneys check me out, and Bobby Ross summons me into his office, who was the head coach at Detroit at the time, and said, “Hey, man, we love you, and you’re under contract” and this and this and whatever. “But here’s the deal. I will never put you on the field ever again. With the injury that you’ve had in the position you play, you’re a tight end HVAC, you’re on special teams.

You’re a headhunter, you’re a wedge breaker. If you were my kid, I would not let you play this game anymore. And as such, I will never put you on this field again.” Hard to hear. He said to his credit and the credit of Detroit Lions in general, “We’ll honor your contracts, you’ve some years on your contract if you just want to sit on the sidelines and you can travel with us and you can be part of the entourage, but you will never play this game again.” He goes, “What do you want to do?” It was one of those things where in reality, it was about five seconds. In my mind, I played out the multiverse of scenarios of where do I go, what happens? I came to the conclusion of this chapter is done, and it’s time to move.

I said, “Hey, coach Ross, I very much appreciate the opportunity. I’m not an entourage guy and this chapter is done, I’m going to move on. Clean break, we’re done.” He shakes my hands, he respects it. I go back to Arizona, my hometown, and I’m sitting around for about two days, and I’m like, “Where do I go? What happens here?” I said, “Let’s go check out this chiropractic thing”, because I don’t know what the heck the guy was talking about. I happened to stumble into this office with a guy named Dr. Jeff Glaus at Preferred Chiropractic in Arizona. I’m watching him, and I’m watching physical therapy and athletic training and nutrition counseling and just positive upbeats and felt like a gym type atmosphere. I felt very at home.

I was like, “Oh, these are all healthy people trying to get healthier through whatever means are possible to make that happen.” I said, “I’m very interested in this.” I spent about a week shadowing him, and I said, “Where should I go to school? I want to go be a doctor of chiropractic.” He gave me some options, and I run out immediately. From the time I retired from the NFL until the time I started doing chiropractic school was maybe five weeks. A very fast transition, boom to boom. My wife and I, we got married, we move, and we’re in Atlanta, and we go through chiropractic school, and I love it. I come out and I get into practice, and the business side of me starts taking over, and I start seeing that, “Hey, why am I referring people out for physical therapy? Why don’t I just bring it in-house?” I bring in physical therapy, and then I brought in pain doctors, and I brought in family doctors, and I brought in orthopedic surgeons, and then ultimately just kept building, vertically integrating.

Then I hit that magic spot of saying, “Hey, ma’am, I’m successful. I’ve done this. I can sell my shares out, and I can move on in life, and I can do the retirement thing.” Well that lasted for about almost a month. My wife was like, “Hey, I really love you. You can’t just hang out at the house and chase me around all day and bother me, like, go find a hobby.” I’d say, you know what I really like doing is I like talking. I like inspiring people, and I like being part of a team. It’s very important to me, and I find satiety and others success more so at that period in my life than I was finding it in myself. Prior to retirement, I had gotten involved and did 50 something triathlons, iron man, got involved in swimming Alcatraz, got involved in Jujitsu and was a practitioner multiple nights a week and opened CrossFit gyms and worked for CrossFit games and an out storm[?].

I just did all of these things that brought a lot of attention back to me. Not intentionally, but I got to a point where I would finish an iron man race, which is a monumental feat to some degree, and like, where’s the dopamine, I guess, from our community? Where’s the reward center? I would feel like, “Okay, let me put it in the pile of..”, and it became a little bit mundane. Then I had the opportunity to coach somebody, and I realized how much more significant that was to me and how much better I felt about it, how much more I poured into it. I would stay up at night stressing about it, and I’d wake up nervous about it and then when that gentleman completed it, and that was a life crusade for him to get through a marathon, I felt like I had just conquered the world, because I had a small part in helping this human being achieve something that they didn’t think they could do.

That led to doing this thing with a bunch of seals and doing coaching with them and running around doing camps and high schools and whatever. In the retirement phase, I have all of that going on the side, and I say that I want to do the leadership consulting, and I very much appreciate them, but they bring me up to a place called American Addiction Centers, which is nationwide company, mostly on the SUD, dual diagnosis side, but primarily SUD. They flew me up to this hospital called Desert Hope in Las Vegas, 180 bed, big dual diagnosis inpatient RTC, PHP, IOP setup. We start talking about the consulting of, “Hey, how do we bring these teams together? Nurses won’t talk to doctors. Doctors won’t talk to the BHAs. BHAs won’t talk to case managers.” I mean, silos started happening, and silos breed toxicity, and toxicity breeds everything that goes bad.

About a half hour into the conversation, the owner of the company says, “Hey, will you just come and be the CEO of this hospital?” I said, It’s[?] in Las Vegas and I live in Phoenix. He’s like, “Yeah, man, it’s a 40 minutes flight. Don’t be a baby.” I took that as a challenge, I was like, “I’m not a baby. What are you talking about, being a baby?” I say yes because it’s unknown. Not to get on my coaching platform, but I believe that personal growth happens in that distance from the known to the unknown, and we call that fear. Wherever you’re at in line, this is what you know going outside that comfort zone, expanding your horizons, expanding your borders, like, move to things you’ve never done before, move through the fear, and that’s growth.

I preach it so I had an opportunity to live it. Hey, yeah, I’ll come be the CEO of 180 bed inpatient RTC, PHP, IOP monster and I’ve never even stepped foot in this side of medicine. I legitimately started that job with the belief that if you are an alcoholic or if you’re an addict, that was your problem for making illogical choices and if you didn’t want to be an alcoholic anymore, then just stop drinking. Nobody’s putting a gun your head and making doing it. Somebody’s like, “Well, it’s a disease.” I said, “No, cancer is a disease.” The person that goes to bed at night doesn’t have the opportunity to just not have cancer the next day or the diabetic to just not have diabetes, and so on and so forth. That was my understanding, which is all leading to my platform now. On the mental health side, I didn’t have a whole lot of insight into what depression really was and PTSD really was and wasn’t or anxiety.

I was the first person if I saw somebody that was acting depressed is to say, “Hey, put a smile on your face. Go make seven people smile, go do fun things that’ll solve your problem.” Obviously, everybody listening to this knows you don’t need to send me negative comments. I know that’s not the path forward. But that’s my start. That’s my start from doing 15 years, deeply immersed in musculoskeletal care and seeing tens of tens of thousands of patients and witnessing injuries after injuries and being in conversations that I can recall to this day. “Hey, I was in a car accident, doc, and my shoulder is getting better, but I’m not sleeping, and I’m sweating, and my heart freaks out. My hands get sweaty and clammy.

Every time I get in the car, I can smell the fire from the engine from when I was in that wreck”. Here’s what I would do, along with pretty much all of my colleagues on that side of the fence. “Oh, okay, John. Anyway, how’s your shoulder?” Here’s the simple reality, that side of the house doesn’t know what to do with mental health, plain and simple. But as a provider, if I ask you the question, I own the answer, and I have to do something with it. If I’m in orthopedic, if I’m in pain, if I’m in chiropractor or PT or any musculoskeletal side, I’m just not even going to bring up the topic to you because if you give me something, I don’t know really what to do with it, which is a big platform that I’m on now is let’s bring these sites together. You give me a microphone, John. You may never…

John: I love it. No, Derek, I love it. This is great.

Derek: I’m at Desert Hope. Amazing half great people, small tweaks, “Hey, you want to bring teams together? Stop doing this and start doing this.” Hey, let me come talk to you as a human being. Because what we’ll say in person is much different than how we communicate this way. They have become siloed to where they’re like, this email was rude, and the person that sent it is like, “I didn’t mean it to be”, all that stuff. What I didn’t know when I went to Desert Hope is the company as a whole was going through a financial crisis.

They were publicly traded, the whole company was delisted, there was bankruptcies, there was rifts, there was layoffs. This is all de novo concept to me on how to run these therapists and counselors and whatever and even understanding the terminology and what is the regulatories behind each one of these. Then you put all those financial stressors in, and then right when I’m like, “I think I have a clear line of sight”, this thing called COVID drops in and goes, “We’re going to change everything.” Everything you just learned gets to go start over or change.

Now that I’m in Arizona, I can say it, but the Department of Health in Nevada basically said, “Hey, you guys are the biggest game in town. We don’t really know how to deal with COVID right now, so we’re going to do it on your facility,” and we think we should, A it said, “Let’s lock the doors until we figure out COVID.” I said, “Okay, hard pass you can’t do that. You can’t restrict trade. You can’t stop us from saving lives. Where are they going to go?” They go, “Okay, that’s a bad idea.” “Okay, here’s what we want. We want a 21-day quarantine for all incoming patients before you start treatment on.” I was like, “On a 14-day off for RTC, you want me to house them for 21 days before I start the treatment, who pays for that?” They’re like, “That’s our requirement.”

As you know, they are legal teams and they blah, blah, blah, whatever. We were on a very short lease, and I had the distinct pleasure of having state Health Department drop ins weekly, bimonthly, just arbitrarily. We want to do temperatures and we want to see logs. There is a silver lining to that. Again, that was outside my norm that really pushed my learning curve rapidly. I learned more because of having gone through that than I think I would have in that normal time frame. About the time everything gets on track, everything’s going well, they’ve restructured the company, they have new headshot, training in the corporate offices. I start to look at it’s been almost a little over three and a half years now, and I was getting on a plane every Monday morning at seven o’clock, and I was flying home every Thursday night at five o’clock and I did that for three and a half years. My youngest daughter, who’s now a freshman in high school, oh sorry, sophomore, looked at me one morning and said, “Hey, dad, how come you’re always here making breakfast for my sisters, but I don’t have you for breakfast?”

I was like, hard stop. No job on planet earth is worth living with a statement like that so I went to American Addiction and said, “Hey, it’s not that I’m looking for anything, it’s not that I’m going anywhere else, but I can’t be in Vegas. I’ve got to be home. I need to be home.” As the universe would have it, John, you know this happens, Acadia came out of nowhere and said, “Hey, we have this place called Sierra Tucson we take a look at, would you be interested? It’s in your backyard. I can drive there and sleep at home.” I said, “Well, yeah, of course”. Fortuitous timing. Basically we went through a six months basic courting process of doing the interview cycles. I was just really impressed with their overall leadership.

I thought they were very concise on their vision. Lead with light, love and purpose that resonates with me it’s not always about the business side, although I appreciate it. Having been an entrepreneur, basically never been. I was a W2 in the NFL and I’m an employee now, but 20 years in between, it was me trying to figure it out. Anyway, so now I’m here and the big upside for me, John, is I have the opportunity to speak to people like yourself. That was really the attraction, was I need a bigger platform because I have brothers and friends from the NFL. I have brothers and friends from the military side of life. I’ve seen them, tough guy things out that lead to bad outcomes, lead to heart attacks, lead to suicide, lead to living a life in the bottle, living a life in the pills. We’re saying, “Hey, raise your hand and say, I need help.”

It sounds very simple, but let me walk you back a step. Think about for anybody listening that played youth sports, youth hockey, football, wrestling, something like that, how many times did you hear from a very early age, don’t cry about it? I don’t want to hear about it? Rub some dirt on it. Nobody wants to hear your complaint. Also knowing that with the complaint, my shoulder hurts, my back hurts, I’m having a headache, means you go sit on the sidelines, next guy, you’re up. That conversation just keeps getting louder the higher you go. Louder by consequence, quieter by volume, which is weird to comprehend. At the high school level, the coaches will yell, “You need to be quiet and stop being a baby.”

But if you’re the best player in the high school, big fish pond, “Okay, you can still play.” At the higher levels, there’s no NFL coaches out there yelling like, “I don’t want to hear about your problems”, because of the society we live in now. But as soon as somebody goes, “Hey, coach, I think”, boom, he’s out, there’s another guy in. Let’s be totally honest, there’s only 1,500 active players in the NFL.

John: Small group.

Derek: There’s 15,000 guys that have the talent to play at that level that just didn’t get a shot for one reason or the other. There’s no shortage of human talent that can play that game. You show one tiny crack in the armor and you’re a guy like me, a lucky to be their guy. Boom, gone. That’s my second platform, is how do we erode the stigma?

Because think about this, John, you are a Super Bowl MVP and your poster is on kid’s walls and Wheaties boxes and video game covers, and that’s how you’re known. It hits the news that you’re an alcoholic or an addict. Like, now you’re an addict, and all the Super Bowls you won and all the greatness that you did on the field all seems to take a backseat to people wanting to say, “Oh, he’s a junkie.” That’s how they feel. A, they don’t want to show weakness. B, they don’t want to be labeled. What do they do? C, they isolate, which everybody on this podcast understands. Like, is there something worse than isolation? Probably not.

John: Probably not.

Derek: I know you asked me for the short rendition. I told you I was going to give it to you, man. But sometimes the color is needed.

John: No, the color and context are absolutely critical, and there’s a lot to unpack there. Before we go talking about all the important and great work you and your colleagues are doing at Sierra Tucson, let’s go back to the NFL. I can remember now, it’s 20 years ago or so, my son and I, he was 10 then, we were in downtown San Diego having lunch together and across maybe 4 or 5 tables away, Junior Seau was having lunch with one of his professional entourage, and he was in a suit. His lawyer or accountant was in a suit.

My son was a huge fan, so I sent him over there. I wanted him not to be afraid to meet some of his heroes and ask for an autograph. Back then, there was no Instagram or anything, as you said, so he just loved to get an autograph and shake his hand. He walked over to Junior Seau, and Junior Seau is in the middle of this important business meeting, and he takes the time with my son to say hello and say, “What’s your name?” He said, “Tyler.” Junior Seau says, “I love that name. That’s my son’s name.” My son still tells his story and I remember it was like yesterday.

He said, “Tyler, give me a piece of paper I’m going to write you a little note.” He wrote him a note he said, “Dear Tyler, be your best. Junior Seau”. My son’s kept that note for the last 20 years. We know how Junior Seau ended up. There’s a lot of people suffering in the NFL from the concussions and the wear and tear that the NFL just imposes upon all the great players like you and Junior Seau. Where is that now? Is that such a political economic issue. This is no knock on the NFL. I’m one of the hugest fans on the planet, and I love Roger Goodell. I think he’s done, in so many ways, a great job. But where are we now with regards to the ex-NFL players that are suffering because of the love of the sport and the greatness that they actually achieved, but now they get to live with the residual negative detriments that were imposed upon them from their playing years?

Derek: That’s a great question. John, I’ll start off by saying light years in front. Light years in front of my personal experience. I still keep up with quite a few players. They’re still active so we have discussions about this. Light years in front, the education. The knowing that hard blows to the head like, “Hey, brain injury is not good. We need to rest it up like we would a sprained ankle.” Yeah, look, guys are memorizing eye charts. Guys have buddies giving them code on what to say. But at the same time, the dichotomy here is while the NFL and we use NFL, but it’s in all sports, boxing, MMA, women’s soccer, [crosstalk] we’re seeing it everywhere.

I know we talk about NFL, but it’s an everywhere thing. The reality at the end of the day is still the same. Hey, John, if you’re the head coach and you don’t win games, you’re not the head coach anymore. If you’re looking over and you’re like, “Hey, I got a Patrick Mahomes, I have a world quarterback.” That quarterback’s in, I’m going to win this game. That quarterback’s out, we don’t go to the AFC championship. Coach, where you want to roll the dice? Super bowl, advance the organization, hundreds of millions of dollars and a legacy and a job, or it’s best to have Patrick sit on the bench today?

John: It’s business.

Derek: You see what I’m saying? I do not want to be in their position.

John: You’re right. We’re going to come back to that later. I have some other questions with regards to that. Like you said, all sports and concussion based stuff, including my own experience with concussion, let’s talk about Sierra Tucson. For those who just joined us, we’ve got Derek Price with us today. He’s the CEO of Sierra Tucson. To find Derek and his colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in addiction therapy and mental health awareness and treatment, please go to Derek, just to put square it up, up front, I’m not only a huge fan of yours from an NFL perspective, but I’m a huge fan of what you’re doing at Sierra Tucson. Seriously.

I’m now a 20-year graduate of an addiction center of the Meadows in Arizona, actually. Had a great experience there and would not give up that experience. I’ve had great therapists since because it doesn’t begin and end. It begins at a great place like yours, but as we know, as we get back into the real world, it’s great to have a coach continue to work with us. I’ve had two great coaches since therapists that I’ve worked with, and it’s been nothing but a great journey. But back then, in 2004, when I went into the Meadows, the stigma on addiction, mental health and wellness was even bigger than it is today, and it’s still quite large. But now we have big influencers, whatever we want to call them.

Rich Roll has been on my show. He talks about mental health in his own journey. Obviously, you’re a triathlete so you know the Rich Roll story, it’s fantastic. Tim Ferriss talks about it a lot. More recently Simone Biles, Coco Gauff. I mean, the stories now are much wider and more iconic than they’ve ever been with players and other influencers and people who have platforms sharing their journeys. Still, there’s a huge stigma to all this. Let’s get into this, what is Sierra Tucson’s? Frame it up for us. Mission to start with, what’s the general macro mission of Sierra Tucson?

Derek: Expect a miracle. It sounds cliché. Expect a miracle. Since I’ve been here, as you can imagine, Acadia it’s a very large company. Sierra Tucson has been around for a very long time, and we’ve got a lot of ethos and a lot of company mantras and all these sexy adjectives and words to describe this long endeavor of who we are, what we do, and what we want to achieve. Here’s what it is. We’re here to save lives. We want to treat those lives as if they were somebody in your family and how would you do it. Outside of that, that’s how we see every single human soul that comes in here. It’s very difficult to choreograph the dance with a patient at Sierra Tucson because every patient gets a customized plan.

We don’t do blockchain it’s not like everybody’s in process group A and everybody does CBT and then DBT. Every person is evaluated by an entire treatment team, and then every person is discussed two times a day by that same treatment team. Schedules modify on the fly based on, like, “Hey, I think somatic experiencing would be better than EMDR for this particular person, here’s why. It’s at the roundtable, the providers talk about it and they change it.” It’s a constant game of ever moving parts, which is difficult on the staff here, for sure. Difficult on me as the administration, for sure but for the patients, it’s amazing. For the patients and the outcomes that we see, it’s amazing.

We like to always speak about the ether of outcomes. We do great success and we have these great outcomes. Well, we’re heavily invested at Sierra Tucson in truly understanding, are we moving the needle? Are we moving the needle beyond what the norm might be? What the normal success rates for the same level of care. We have an eight-person neuroscience team with psychometrists, which I didn’t even know what a psychometrist was. What’s a psychometrist?

John: I don’t know. I got a bunch of them on payroll. I know what they do.

Derek: They measure and evaluate objectively so many different statistics to ensure that we’re meeting the benchmarks for the outcomes that we’re looking for, that we’ve gone far enough now where they’re modeling predictive outcomes like this person, this demographic background, history, drugs, would do best with this and when they go on this path, here’s what we can predict, even to the point of craziness and data is data and numbers don’t lie. This type of person is going to have an AMA struggle around day four when they go from this to this. We do early intervention. We bring a lot to the table. One of the things that’s very special about Sierra Tucson is Acadia puts a lot of resource.

I don’t want to call unnecessary financial resource, but more than it would take to run a business. They spend more than they’re required to run the business, and they do so, so that they know this place always maintains that special it factor. I got a four to one staff to patient ratio. Think about that for a second. I have about 130 and 140 patients in a given time inpatient, and I have about 500 staff members. You and I know and any business owner on this call says, “How does that pencil out?” The reality is, that’s just what happens here. I have 25 medical doctors on staff, not PRN, not contract, not come and go as they please. W2 40 plus counselors, it’s so well done.

Before I give it backwards, one statement you made that I think is very important. Sierra Tucson is where you start your journey. It is where you start the journey of recovery, is where you start the journey of changing your life, is where we want to bring the focus point and get you going down that path. Listen, if you’ve had lifelong depression, anxiety, if you’ve had PTSD from X, Y, Z factors, to think that in 14 to 28 to 40 days, that all goes away, we’re all fooling ourselves. One of my clinical directors had to do an in-house for an admissions team and he said, “Make sure when you’re talking to patients on the phone, yes, we sell hope and we sell help, but make sure you’re honest with them. This is where journey starts. It doesn’t end here and their outcome is based on their desire to put in the work to get there.” I thought it was great.

John: Sierra Tucson, Derek, is really one of the preeminent recovery centers in the world. You have a red, white, and blue program that treats police, military, veterans, firefighters, first responders, and as we know, there’s a lot of mental health challenges that they face. What does the red, white, and blue program look like at Sierra Tucson? What sets you apart with that special and unique program?

Derek: Sure. Shameless plug for myself. My oldest daughter is 21 and is the youngest female firefighter ever to be hired in the State of Arizona. Yes, I’m bragging. Proud dad.

John: Congratulations. That’s awesome. That’s wonderful.

Derek: In so much as, like, I have a passion for our military. I have a passion for paramedics, for the LEO, and for fire. Because what they go through and what they see on the daily and multiple times per shift. I mean, when you have to have a conversation with your daughter about, “Hey, there’s stuff you can tell dad about your shift, but maybe we should change the conversation when you talk to mom.” Just need to hear about that, you know that they’re carrying a lot of stuff with them so your question specifically was what makes RWB, red, white, and blue here at Sierra Tucson different? It is its own standalone program. They have their own lodge. They live together, they room together, they meal together.

Their processes groups are not blended. They have programming specific to their needs and the trauma, anxiety and depression. They have activities together. When you look at police, fire, and military, it is very much like being on a sports team. It’s a fraternity or sorority, men or women. It’s a group, it’s a brotherhood, it’s a sisterhood. It’s a sense of belonging, it’s a sense of fighting for a similar cause and you form the bonds within those teams, fire, police, military, whatever, where these people are more like family than they are coworkers.

They’re more than just an associate they’re like family. We have found that when we allow them to all live together, I know you could make the case for yeah, but when they go home, their neighborhood isn’t filled with all firefighters, they live next to civilians and they go to the gym with civilians, and they should learn how to interact. The answer is unequivocally, of course, but where I’m coming from is we’re starting the journey. Starting the journey for me right here is saying, “Hey, I know you are scared to leave your job. I know you’re scared to raise your hand. I know you’re uncomfortable seeking help. And I know it’s not of the police, of the fire, or of the military to say, I’m weak and I have a problem.” Stigma.

Nobody wants that, especially from those alpha circles. When I say alpha, I’m talking men and women. I have all daughters but when they know that they’re going to go and be amongst their brothers and sisters, there’s a comfort that brings them here. There’s a comfort that brings them here and like I said, we start the journey. As the journey evolves, as treatment evolves, as they start seeing progress towards the end of their care, we start integrating into civilian life because we know the turnover back to outside of inpatient residential is they’re going to live in their neighborhoods, they’re going to be at their own block parties. They’re going to be at their church circles, which they may not be surrounded by police fire, and military all the time. We want to start with as comfortable as possible to reduce the anxiety, reduce the depression, to start to move things forward.

Second to that is all of them go through all of our integratives, which means every week they’re getting chiropractic adjustments, they’re getting physical therapy, they’re getting acupuncture, they’re doing massage. Our neuro team is doing the brain mapping. We’re getting ready to do our TBI with the hyperbaric chambers. We have the TMS, the trans magnetic stimulation. We do the TCDS, transcranial direct stimulation. Right now, we’re getting into the stellate ganglion blocks, which is really interesting, and moving into our medical director, Dr. Jasleen Chhatwal, is just a brilliant human being.

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John: What does that mean? What does that even mean? I know what a lot of the other terminology you just said, and we’re going to get into some of that stuff, too but what is the ganglion blocks thing? I never heard of that one. Explain that.

Derek: It blocks your sympathetic response so that you can reduce your anxiety, you can reduce your PTSD symptoms. It makes you more palliable towards therapy sessions.

John: How do you do that? What’s the methodology that you’re…

Derek: As it stands right now, is we refer them out to a local group that will do that. It’s a procedure. It’s just a small injection that suboccipital region in the ganglion, in the suboccipital ganglion. Then they bring them back. We send them out, they do that, they come right back. It’s not a hospital stay or anything to it.

John: Got it. How long does that last for?

Derek: I don’t know the answer to that.

John: Okay.

Derek: It’s a newer thing[crosstalk] What I’m constantly pressing my team on is, “Hey, what we do yesterday and what can we do better tomorrow?” And they’re like, “Can you stop asking us?” I’m like, “Every day, what’s better? Good is good until good becomes better and better becomes best, it’s nonstop.

John: You love the progress and that new ganglion block therapy allows them to be on boarded in a more gentle way because now they’re more open then to the integrative philosophy that you have at Sierra Tucson, is that sort of how it works?

Derek: I’m going to with a massive asterisk knowing that this isn’t my exact wheelhouse.

John: Okay.

Derek: Yes. I would say yes.

John: Got it. Neither is it mine but I just wanted to go over that. You just mentioned stigma and I talked about stigma 20 years ago when I had an intervention, and I was sent over to the Meadows. The stigma still exists unfortunately, and folks think that we still have this ingrained in our society that asking for help is a sign of weakness instead of a sign of strength. What’s your thoughts, Derek, on overcoming that?

Derek: The correct answer is weakness is cowardice of not seizing the correct opportunity. Strength is stepping outside. The space, from what I know to the unknown, nobody’s ever been there. It’s scary. It’s fear. You look at groups of people that are all coming from the same area that have been told their whole life, never express weakness. Look out for your buddy, nobody wants to hear about your problem. Suck it up, buttercup, rub some dirt on it. Then all of a sudden, at the end of their career, when they’re not being coached anymore, they don’t have the same influential role models in their lives, sports coaches, et cetera.

They’re asked, like, “Hey, can you go against everything that you learned, the culture that you came from since?” Listen, if you play in NFL, you started playing football when you were 5. Now it’s 20 plus years, very formidable years, very impressionable years and that’s what makes you-you, you’re the guy that, “Yeah, I broke my knee, but I kept playing ball and we won.” You’re praised to be a hero. Now we’re saying, raise your hand and say you have a problem. What we’re trying to do is to empower and educate in that strength is doing this. This is not weakness, this is strength. Raising my hand and saying, “I have a problem.” Now John, I’m going to blow your mind here. I have had parents with sports backgrounds not want to send their children here because they didn’t want the stigma of having a child with a diagnosis attached to it.

John: Oh, my God.

Derek: They didn’t. Like, “Hey, how can we do this? How can I hide from this?” It’s crazy.

John: It’d be a bad reflection on their parenting, they feel, or something of that nature, which is nuts.

Derek: Some of these parents you would know their names and they’re like, “Hey, listen, I can’t really have this. I don’t want this. Can I put them in under a fake name?” I’m on phone having these conversations. Years ago I’d been like, “Yeah, it makes perfect sense.” But now that I understand what mental health is I’m like, “We need to educate, man.” People like you having a podcast like this you’re just broadcasting and the more we can do that, the more we can talk about it. I’m a man of action, not of talk, but the more we talk about it will lead to action.

John: I love what you’re doing. The integrative philosophy that you just mentioned, Derek, when I was at the Meadows, it didn’t exist, frankly speaking. I had an amazing and life-changing experience there, but there was no EMDR there. There was no massage or acupuncture or hyperbaric oxygen wasn’t being used back in those days. Talk a little bit about the importance of not just straight up as we know it, Freudian mental health and wellness therapy, the integrative philosophy that you have, and why does that work better than just sitting and talking, laying down on a couch and talking to a therapist. Talk about your integrative approach, what makes you unique, and why you have more success with that than what would have been the sort of linear approach that I got used to 20 years ago or so.

Derek: I’ll speak theoretical. When we talk about healing, we talk about mind, body, spirit. Then if you break down mind, body, spirit, one of those words is mind and it’s very orchestrated to what our discussion is and the understanding of the therapy and the SE and the EMDR and all the things that go along with mind altering and reprogramming and reprocessing and recalibrating, et cetera. But body’s in there, too. To think that the body should be ignored for the mind or the mind ignored for the body is where we live today. It’s the divide between the musculoskeletal side of the house, and the mental health side of the house, and very infrequently do those two ever come together? Ever.

I can say that running a very large orthopedic pain, chiro, multidisciplinary, I had drug reps in 5 times a day. I had marketers in 10 times a day. Do you know how many psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers I spoke to in that 15 year span? Zero. Had one psychiatrist walked in and said, “Hey, I know you don’t know what GAD-7, PHQ-9, I know you don’t know those things, that’s okay. Here’s a little survey. Just give these to your patients that have long term chronic pain, or just give them all of them. If they score a certain number, just call me. Just call me.”

Listen, I just went through a meta-analysis, and I apologize for the reference I can’t remember exactly where it came from, but they looked at like 6,500 car accidents with injury, with bodily injury, and of those they found 25% over 1,200 people had diagnosable PTSD. Rewind my history of time where I was doing a lot of med-legal work, a lot of personal injury, a lot of car accidents. You know how many people I sent out for PTSD and I saw thousands and thousands of cases, zero, zero point zero zero zero repeating. Because I didn’t know. Whose fault is that? Of course, it’s my fault. I wasn’t educated.

John: It wasn’t out there.

Derek: It wasn’t out there. But bringing the two sides together, John, allows.. You want to be holistic, this is holistic. Hey, let’s do yoga, let’s do physical therapy. Let’s work on making your body not hurt so bad so you’re not into chronic state of stress because stress causes dysregulation. Dysregulation causes an interruption to your normal hormone flow. Dysregulation changes dopamine, changes serotonin, increases cortisol. Now all of a sudden we get into a conversation that the therapists on this call right now are saying, “Oh yeah, I know that part. Okay, well, where does some of that come from?” Sometimes it’s chronic pain, sometimes it’s my back hurts every freaking day of my life.

I’m sad all the time. “Okay, well, do you want to just process out how to deal with back pain or should we actually work on how to solve back pain simultaneous to working on the mental health side?” That’s our approach is, hey, if we can do body work and we can do somatic work and body work and we can do mental health work and mental health hygiene and we can do them together, I think just logically, you’re going to say, “Well, yeah, that’s probably going to give you a better outcome.” Because what’s the downside? Are you going to make somebody worse because you’re improving their physical structure, form and function? I’ve never heard of that. It’s either a net zero change or it’s for the positive. We roll the dice on it and it seems to work really well.

John: Are other mental health centers following your approach now, watching your paradigm that you’ve created there with your colleagues? Is that now being seen as the platinum standard? Obviously, your brand is the platinum standard, your success rate is the platinum standard. Are others starting to follow now?

Derek: Yeah, but not for the reasons that I would like to say this is why, it’s usually because somebody comes in and says, “Oh, you’re a top therapist at Sierra Tucson [inaudible]”. Half of my life is trying to retain my staff because they are at Sierra Tucson, so they get a lot of phone calls and opportunities. But I think that there’s more and more literature about it. I think there’s more discussion about it. A matter of fact, we have on staff up until recently, until he took a fellowship, Dr. Bennet Davis.

On staff at this facility, I have an orthopedic surgeon full-time. Like, where else does that happen? Think of any facility you can think of in the United States that says they have a full-time orthopedic surgeon, they have multiple physical therapists, they have multiple naturopaths, they have multiple chiropractors, acupuncture, we have personal trainers, all of that stuff. We have a whole stable of that because we believe in treating the whole person holistically. Let’s make your body strong, let’s make your mind strong and you have the best opportunity for success.

John: Just imagine if when you were studying to be a chiropractor or when you were starting your practice, if it had been written and you had read the body keeps a score back then.

Derek: Yeah. 100%. Yes.

John: That really pulls together. Now your expertise on both sides, the mental health side, and also your old practice as a chiropractor, as a doctor, it really pulls it all together and it makes [crosstalk] now.

Derek: Absolutely, yeah, great reference. 100%.

John: Yeah. Let’s talk a little bit about some of them. I’ve had Dr. Rick Doblin on the show from MAPS and he’s just nothing but brilliant and dedicated to the mission. Talk a little bit about some of the newer programs that are now starting to get publicity, starting to be socialized, a little bit normalized in terms of small dose LSD, mushroom therapy, ketamine therapy, where are we with that now science related? how do you know when it’s time to integrate that into your integrative philosophy at Sierra Tucson?

Derek: Sure. As I already mentioned, you know that we’re using ketamine. It’s a great placeholder and we see amazing results. Again, Dr. Chhatwal monitors that program and really spends the time to not just copycat like, “Hey, we can use ketamine, let’s do that.” But finding the conferences, reading the literature, and truly understanding the power of it and how to make it as efficient as possible. To your second part of the question, psychedelics. You start getting into natural psychedelics, the psilocybin’s, ayahuasca’s, the mushrooms, et cetera. Anecdotally, well, we don’t do that here at Sierra Tucson yet because it’s not FDA regulated, it’s not legalized, it’s not something that we could get involved in.

But from the outside, I know personally enough and I’ve seen it anecdotally a lot of people from that special operator community going to Mexico, going to Peru, going to Colombia, going to Panama and going on those psychedelic journeys and I personally have witnessed people coming back and I’m like, “That’s a different person.” My best answer is there is something there. It’s undeniable. I don’t know where science is at. I’ve heard that University of Austin is doing a bunch of tests. I know that Dr. Andrew Huberman out of Stanford is really high on it right now.

I’ve heard that Harvard is doing some studies and John, I think it’d be naïve to say that within the next like 5 to 10 years that that wouldn’t have a hold somewhere in this community because at the end of the day you just can’t deny results. This game is challenging and hard enough and oftentimes at our best efforts, relapse is still 50%. At our best efforts at the best facilities. If there’s something else that can move the needle, I’m all about, “Hey, let’s sit down and talk about it. I don’t care.” Let’s go back to what I said originally. “If you can rub chicken blood on my shoulder, put a crystal in my ear and it makes me better, I want to sit down and have a conversation with you.”

John: That’s right. I love it.

Derek: I think it’ll be in the marketplace. I think it’ll be in the facilities. I think the larger facilities are going to sit on the sidelines for a while and wait for all the legalization and the studies to come out. But I think that your smaller kind of your mom and pops, your smaller entities are going to start gambling on it because we’re all reading the same things. We’re seeing that it works. The sad thing is, I can tell you 50 veterans that have done work like this and praise about it, I can’t open the newspaper and see a single story about it. It’s not being picked up. Let’s just keep talking about it, normalize it a little bit.

John: Derek, I’m 60 years old, I grew up in New York City, and when I was a kid, 10 or 11 years old, I worked at a dry cleaner sweeping the floors. That dry cleaner had the contract for the New York Jet uniforms to clean every week. Every Monday afternoon after school, I’d go in, I’d run in, and I’d see Joe Namath [crosstalk]

Derek: [Inaudible] Joe.

John: It was almost like a surreal experience. There was almost like a halo around his jersey and I remember watching it the day before on television. About 7, 8 years ago or so, he was on The Howard Stern Show, and he was sharing his journey a little bit. He said when he was in his early 60s or so, he started having little memory issues. He went to go see Dr. Daniel Amen, who I’d been to the Amen Clinic as well because of a bad concussion. He said Amen put him into a hyperbaric oxygen therapy program that when they retested his brain when he was finished with the program, literally, the brain was 20-30 years rejuvenated compared to what it was when he started.

Now, he felt that where he was in his early 60s was due to a lot of the brain trauma that he had from the NFL days. Talking about brain health now and mental health combined, and also NFL, if a guy like Joe Namath, who is literally one of the most iconic players ever to come out of the NFL and also, obviously college as well, football, had that great experience, and Dr. Daniel Amen’s had a lot of experience with ex-NFLs with regards to hyperbaric oxygen.

Again, I know you’re using hyperbaric oxygen. Talk a little bit about the success you’re having with it at Sierra Tucson and why? But let’s also go back to the NFL, why doesn’t every stadium or every training facility have a couple of these machines? I’ve used it myself with tremendous results after a very bad concussion. Is this going to be, again, one of those things like we were just talking about anecdotally speaking with regards to mushroom therapy and small dose LSD therapy and other things, is it going to become more mainstream as we go? What’s your thoughts on hyperbaric oxygen therapy with regards to brain health and also mental health and addiction health?

Derek: A ton to go off of there. Hyperbaric chambers speak themselves. Hyper oxygenating, it heals brain tissue, period, end of story. We’re also looking to bring in like, hot and cold therapy to get the heat shock proteins to reduce cortisol, reduce inflammation to go along with that body work. But I think the most pressing fact is the underbelly of how we do what we do and it comes into the third party payer system. There’s no code of which I can bill for that. There’s no pharmaceutical company that’s going to lobby for that, there’s no pharmaceutical company that’s going to endorse that because you’re basically saying, “Hey, I don’t need a pharmacy. I don’t need a prescription drug.

I don’t need a viable purchasable capitalistic product, I can just go do some sessions here” versus imagine the person with mental health issues that’s on a myriad of medication throughout their life. Now imagine if you were on that side of fence making money pharmaceutically on those scripts, stock hold whatever, along comes the therapy, like, wait a second, so you’re just going to sleep a little tent and become hyperoxygenated and some of that stuff goes away and then you don’t have to be on these scripts? Hey, let’s all applaud in public, but we’re going to lose share price.

People stop using our drugs. I don’t want to go down the conspiracy rabbit hole, but listen, like, greater than 50% of our commercials on network TV are sponsored by pharmaceuticals so why is it not talked about on the media? Because they’re probably told don’t talk about it. Don’t throw out alternatives that buck the system of the products that you’re selling on your commercials, that’d be terrible. I think it goes out to say that if Joe Namath was using that, we know that-that works. Anecdotally, we know it works. Through studies, we know that it works. There’s no secret to it. The white papers are out there that it works.

John: That’s right.

Derek: To your point, why is it not everywhere? Why? I can’t answer that for you. It’s illogical to me personally because I come from chiropractic, which is I don’t drug or surgery to offer you. I by default, am starting from the most conservative place and trying to teach you how to take care of you, teach you how to strengthen you, teach you how to stabilize you and then more invasive would be let’s get to a medication, and then beyond more invasive would be to a surgery. I’m always going to default to what is the least invasive path I can start with and if that doesn’t work, then let’s move more invasive. But why wouldn’t we start at what’s the smallest variable to see what stimulation I can get versus, “Oh, he’s got a blister, nuclear bomb”. That’s…

John: But you’re using it with success at Sierra Tucson, you’re using hyperbaric.

Derek: Yeah. Right now we’re still farming that out. We’re building an onsite so that we can do all of that here. It’s very encouraging.

John: Will that go with the hot and cold therapy as well? With the heat [inaudible]?

Derek: Absolutely.

John: That’s great. That’s awesome. I know this is very early in this discussion, but I know it’s probably trickled up to your desk because as you said, you have 25 doctors on staff. This whole huge trending craze of semaglutide, Ozempic, Wegovy, whatever you’re going to call these miracle diabetes drugs that’s now using for weight loss, there is now a growing body of evidence that potentially these same medications could also help with beyond food addiction and food eating problems and food disorders, but also with other addictions. How is that anecdotal information trickling up to you and how promising does that seem so far, Derek?

Derek: John, it’s absolutely trickling to us. One of the benefits, again with Sierra Tucson on the amount of staff I have is I have an entire eating recovery team. I’ve got multiple eating coaches, I have naturopaths, they’re involved in the eating side. I have psychiatrists, they’re involved in eating recovery. It’s very important, we call it eating recovery, not eating disorder here.

If you hear me keep saying eating recovery… I walked in and said, “Hey, don’t we do eating disorders here?” I was slammed to the ground by my nutrition team, so I’ve learned my lesson. But to that end, being a bigger entity, we like to be out front with the stuff that’s proven. But with like an Ozempic, it’s early. Like this Ozempic craze started six, eight months ago, give or take. Maybe before that but I think that’s when we all started hearing about it. Are we ready to stake our mission values and our treatment sessions on it right now? Probably not yet, but anecdotally to your point, when there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

So we follow smoke and we’re going to keep following that. We’re going to keep digging it and keep digging it and keep digging it. And when we can get enough research data to support that, we know we can stand on that pillar. John, it’s just because there’s a massive microscope over us. If I was a mom-and-pop shop, I’d be like, “Let’s do that”, but when you’re this big of player, big boats turn slow. I wish they turned faster, but big boats turn slow.

John: Got it. Derek, you’ve been just an absolute joy and pleasure to host today on our podcast. We want you to come back and continue the amazing and important journey you’re having at Sierra Tucson. For our listeners and viewers, to find Derek and his colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in addiction recovery and mental health and wellness Sierra Tucson, please go to Derek, God bless you. Thank you for the impact you’re making on us here and thank you for the impact and all the lives that you’re saving at Sierra Tucson. You are exactly why we do this podcast and we’re just really grateful for your time to keep sharing the journey and the message. Thank you so much.

Derek: Thank you, John. Thanks for having this and thanks for hosting me and just all the thank yous.

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For more background on Derek, see this Authority magazine interview with him: