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The importance of supporting mental wellness for wrestlers in a post-pandemic world

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Lio Rush said his “final” goodbyes to wrestling earlier this week.

Final is in quotations because this isn’t the first time Lio told us he’s finished and wrestlers “retire” all the time. That is until the right-sized bag calls their name, and they start feeling like Pookie in New Jack City. But something about Lio’s Instagram message felt different. Precisely when he mentioned sinking into depression and the emotional pain he felt when he couldn’t lift up his newborn.

Those are remarkably human admissions from someone in a profession built on the illusion that superhumans exist. While the physical bumps and bruises our favorite wrestlers accumulate are nauseatingly documented, there’s a lot less said about the mental toll.

Any fan of Dark Side of the Ring knows Rush isn’t the first wrestler who felt depressed and just needed to getaway. And as the world keeps spinning, he won’t be the last. So as companies prepare to hit the road again and start this new decade of professional wrestling, how truly prepared are they for looking after the mental well-being of the wrestlers on their roster?

For decades, the expectation was for athletes to perform no matter what. They were told to leave their problems at home and put on a show for the people who paid hard-earned money to cheer in the stands. As a result, they were treated less like people and more like marionettes. Not only by the suits and ties who ran their leagues but also by the fans. Looking at more than a couple instances in the NBA this year, or the maelstrom around Naomi Osaka at tennis’s French Open, that sadly still rings true.

However, If there’s one positive attributed to social media, it’s that we get to see the humanity of the people we boo or cheer for every week. Whether it’s a heartfelt retirement post on Instagram or venting frustrations on Twitch, they let us into their world, even if it’s just a peek. No doubt, this breaking the fourth wall routine has its ups and downs. Like us, they sometimes share too much, and it’s not uncommon for one of them to put a foot in their mouths before they even eat breakfast. I get it.

However, it gives them a space to have plenty of real talk and honestly express their emotions beyond 30 second soundbites. Lio Rush wasn’t allowed to feel depressed or regret not spending time with his family. Lionel Green is afforded all of those luxuries, just like the rest of us.

In the past year, Sasha Banks, Bianca Belair, Lana, Braun Strowman, and the wrestler formerly known as Aleister Black opened up about their battles with mental health. It’s hard imagining that many wrestlers openly admitting such a thing 10-15 years ago. It’s even harder envisioning a single one of them taking time off, coming back, not losing their spot, and putting on a classic at WrestleMania the following year. Not everyone has the clout Banks has today, or Steve Austin had all those years ago when he took a timeout.

Wrestlers in the middle or lower sections of the card don’t have the same value. They live in fear that taking any time off for any reason whatsoever is a death sentence for their careers, which are already on life support. That’s a level of stress I never want any parts of for as long as I’m breathing.

Kylie Rae’s Instagram

So how do companies like WWE or AEW deal with this issue as a whole? We’re not entirely sure. Their wrestlers know the struggle is real and publicly support self-care. The locker room environment isn’t what it used to be. It’s now seems to be filled with supportive people who understand a prolonged “case of the Mondays.”

There’s little clear indication the people who sign the checks feel the same, even as the world around them changes. Seven NFL teams have full-time psychologists, and each squad is required to have a clinician on site for several hours per week.

The NBA’s Mind Health program is still in its infancy and doing its best to help players cope with, well, pretty much everything. And MLB is putting extra emphasis on their players’ resources when they just need someone to talk to. WWE’s Wellness Program covers mental health, but at first glance, it puts more stock in drug violations and rehabilitation. In 2021, that ain’t it.

Wrestlers are, thankfully, more comfortable talking about their mental pain points. After dealing with a pandemic and all that came with it, who can blame them? These conversations are necessary to eradicate the mental wellness stigma that lingered for way too long in our society. As the wrestling world adapts to a post-COVID world like the rest of us, pray to your god of choice that these wellness programs also evolve beyond their traditional beginnings.

These women and men deserve it.

If you or anyone you know is dealing with or has questions about mental illness, you can find more information and resources here.