Faces of Depression: Philip Burguieres
< Faces of Depression
As one of the youngest CEOs ever to run a Fortune 500 company, Philip Burguieres had the world by the tail. But this self-described workaholic's predisposition toward depression eventually emerged. Fearing the backlash of stigma around mental health problems, Burguieres resigned. "I never thought I'd work again," he said. However, Burguieres eventually made a full recovery, creating a tailored health regimen that includes social support, healthy diet and exercise, spiritual pursuits, and reaching out to other executives battling depression. Burguieres re-entered corporate life as vice chairman of the NFL team, the Houston Texans.
You were enjoying terrific professional success when your depression descended. Did your depression develop over time, or can you define a more specific and immediate transition?
Although I was not aware of it at the time, it's clear in retrospect that my depression developed over a long period. I probably even had very minor bouts of depression as a child.
I also had a few "precursors" leading up to my major depressive episode. For instance, when I was chosen as CEO for a major oil service business early in my career, it just wasn't an emotional high for me. I actually felt a little down; here was one of the greatest moments of my life and I felt nothing. About eleven years later, in a different leadership position, I developed anxiety and insomnia. When I left that position, a psychiatrist diagnosed situational depression. That was exactly what I had wanted to hear, because I could blame it on the job. One doctor even told me to "just take a vacation," thinking it was stress.
But it really wasn't just the job, and it wasn't just stress. I think my major episode was really the culmination of undiagnosed depression, a condition I had been fighting for years.
When you experienced the depressive episode that led to your resignation, did you realize you had a disease?
Initially I had no idea I was clinically depressed, or that I had any kind of treatable illness. It was like being in a new world; I knew I couldn't continue in my position, but it was really difficult to leave. If I left, life as I knew it would be over. But at that point, I really didn't have any other choice. I had started thinking illogical things, like "maybe if I wasn't here anymore..." I was actively thinking of how the world would be a better place without me.
Did you hide your disorder from colleagues and family?
I never exactly hid it. But instead of talking about "depression," I used terms like "brain chemistry." In fact, before I sought treatment, I presented my board of directors with a doctor's notice stating that I was suffering some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain that required six months to cure. I felt that I couldn't talk about depression in a professional setting, because it seemed like admitting to weakness, or failing. Most of the business press attributed my resignation to nonspecific "health reasons," with some more detailed reports indicating that my departure was "stress-related." At that time, it was really hard for corporate America to accept depression for what it is: a disease. It's still difficult for people to define it as such.
With my family, things were different. I was always candid. But my wife, who has since passed away, didn't realize I had clinical depression. She thought I was stressed because of work and that it would pass eventually, as it had in earlier phases of my career.
You said that a relatively high percentage of executives experience depression. What was your (and perhaps other executives') greatest barrier to seeking professional help?
The stigma associated with the illness is so strong. I estimate that 50% of CEOs, at some point in their lives, experience depression. I receive calls about it daily, and at least twice a week I meet CEOs who are struggling or have struggled with depression.
But it's still such a secret. And why? Every time I read in the newspaper that somebody has left a corporation for "health reasons" I know exactly what it is: it's depression. You wouldn't blame a diabetic for being sick, so why do it to a depressive?
I'm committed to de-stigmatizing depression in the corporate community. Because depression is an illness, like diabetes or heart disease, and people can have a genetic predisposition for it. Depression is also chronic and widespread in the executive office because of pressure and isolation, as well as the CEOs' own unique drive to succeed. Those at the top are particularly prone.
I want to make it acceptable for people to seek help, and to talk about it. I've created a "CEO's guide to depression" that discusses various treatments, and encourages greater openness about the disease. I have also been open about my own experience, and I share my story with other CEOs in lecture settings several times a year. I have found that helping other people helps me, and keeps me healthier. It's a big part of my professional and personal life.
You shared that antidepressant medication was not helpful to you, and that you've created your own system of managing depression. Can you describe your period of healing, and how you discovered the therapeutic methods that work for you?
When I was first diagnosed with depression, my initial reaction was to find the "magic pill" or the quick solution. I was a person who really had not failed at anything before. But little did I know I was on a two-year battle to get well.
I checked into a mental health clinic for three months, and I tried seven kinds of antidepressants. Nothing worked. When I went home, I was still afraid and barely able to function. I slept a lot, but I was still exhausted. I was totally convinced that I would never again contribute, never do anything of significance.
But I took things once small step at a time. It took me six months to gain enough energy to walk around the block. I could manage reading, and I read a lot, which helped. Eventually I ran into an acquaintance of mine, John Sage, in a restaurant. I was honest with him about my condition, and we started to talk. Turned out John was also recovering from severe depression. We became the "get well team," talking to each other daily by phone and meeting several times a week. This connection helped me tremendously.
Eventually, I learned to flip my brain around. The way I view the world now versus the way I viewed it before is very different. It's about getting out of myself and focusing on other people. And you can't just say it. You have to do it and live it. If you are busy helping other people, it's more difficult to be depressed. Reaching out to others, flipping my viewpoint, has made all the difference for me.
It's hard for CEOs who suffer from depression. They've got these huge responsibilities, and they're making $5 million a year. They can't just quit, and they shouldn't. But you have to have meaning and balance in your life.
Read more about Philip's story and depression in corporate America
Psychology Today: psychologytoday.com/ articles/ pto-20030302-000002.html
Change Magazine: www.changemagazine.net/ articles/ may_feature1_page01.html