WWE: Mentioning the Unmentionable by Marc Madison

On Thursday, May 18th, singer-songwriter Chris Cornell passed away. His death really affected a number of music fans and had a profound effect on people in the entertainment industry. One of the people who commented upon Cornell’s death was MMA and wrestling commentator (the current voice of WWE NXT) Mauro Ranallo.Ranallo has had a long history of dealing with mental health issues have been diagnosed as bipolar. He is very passionate about promoting awareness of mental illness and ending the stigma attached to it. Meanwhile, looking at WWE, they have been quite vigilant in their implementation of their wellness policy as it pertains to the abuse of any performance enhancers or drugs of abuse. Testing positive for something that isn’t deemed acceptable, or for which talent has a therapeutic use exemption (TUE,) can have repercussions. It hasn’t mattered whether it was the biggest name on the card in Roman Reigns, or someone that has had a smaller role such as the now released Adam Rose; they don’t pull any punches regarding who will be reprimanded for their actions.

However, for all that WWE does to protect its athletes from themselves, one has to wonder about how they assist with another illness that should be identified by the company. Ranallo needed time away to cope with the extremes that come from having to deal with his mental illness, but how would they support others that experience the same challenges? One name, in particular, someone who is no longer with the company, quite obviously needed the support that a robust wellness program could offer: Chris Benoit.

Just to say that name may suggest the second coming of the devil himself. Having been found responsible for not only taking his own life, but those of his wife and child, ten years removed from that fateful day one has to wonder if WWE will ever want to bring closure and remove the asterisk that rests upon his name achievements. Such acts are clearly nothing the company wants to be affiliated with, and for good reason; it was horrific. Consequently, everything Benoit did in the ring, in the eyes of many, doesn’t matter. It was his last acts before he took his own life that he is measured by. The memory of a gifted wrestler died that day along with his wife Nancy and their son Daniel.

However, Chris Cornell’s suicide is being discussed in the context of, not someone giving up on life, but as being connected to a chemical released within the brain, with the effect that it encourages someone that has everything to end it. Can you imagine if your conscience, which you depend on to help you decide right from wrong, leading you in a direction where you never thought you would go? Some speculated that the use of steroids could have led to the extremes of Benoit’s behavior. His autopsy discovered evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE,) which has been linked to mental illness and dementia. Both theories point to these actions being done by someone, not in their right mind. They don’t consciously know what they are doing or why they are doing it. All they know is there is a voice telling them that everything they have done up to that particular moment means nothing. The roid rage that was discussed in connection with the actions by Benoit is said to be the reason for why the company has become so stringent on their wellness policy, not to mention how strict they are in dealing with domestic abuse. The discussion of CTE led to the ban on chair shots to the head.

Does that mean, rather than helping the son that is now without a father, or helping their talent that may suffer from mental illness that they dismiss them? For instance, WWE once employed Ray Leppan, know as Adam Rose, who suffered from ADHD which is classified as a brain disorder, which is a mental illness since it is a psychiatric diagnosis. Rose has claimed he had a doctor’s note (TUE) for prescription medication, but was suspended for testing positive for that medication. One can see where we are going with this: Leppan’s life spiraled out of control in childhood, and it wasn’t until he was taking prescription medication that he was able to stabilize that behavior. Leppan has said that this will be the last year that he competes professionally. While his release from WWE isn’t connected to this decision, it is unfortunate that this was his ultimate choice. He has been arrested and faced his fair share of issues, but one has to wonder how it would have turned out if he was better supported and the proper mechanisms were put in place to ensure that he could manage his illness. While the challenges of becoming a star in the WWEare no small step, the company is working with real people with real emotions. Their ability to cope makes it even more important that they do everything to ensure that people like Leppan can move forward.

We treat the body with a variety of methods to ensure that it is healthy and able to function; WWE has a program for physical recovery. However, what about addressing their talents’ minds? We can suggest that the number of concussions that Benoit sustained contributed to his behavior, and you can mitigate against the physical causes of those concussions, but people suffering from mental illness are often suffering in silence. Mauro Ranallo didn’t wear his diagnosis as a badge with neon lights, and we only know about it because he isn’t shy about his struggles. Being able to work is difficult regardless of whom you are, and from one night to the next, he had to cope with his inner turmoil that others simply don’t understand. Some might callously say that those with such challenges best not be in the industry, but could other means be created to help address the problem? There were some reports that Ranallo was ‘bullied,’ but he himself never said anything along those lines. Regardless, understanding and outreach to those for whom this could be a problem is an issue.

There are only two women on the WWE roster who are mothers, Tamina and Mickie James. While this hasn’t been reported to be an issue for them, an illness that can strike any mother after their child is born is post-partum depression. When they return to work after having their child, are they happy? Are they sad? Women struggling with this ask themselves, can they please their child? These are real feelings, though it isn’t something that WWE has had to address, does that mean they won’t at some point? Fans will recall that former WWE and TNA women’s wrestler Kharma/Awesome Kong went on hiatus and because she was pregnant but never returned. The reality is that, sadly, she suffered a miscarriage. Enduring this trauma is enough to cause someone to deal with depression. If she remained with the company and had to endure the issues that come from suffering a loss, how would the company support or aid her? In some cases, medication help deals with anxiety or depression, but comprehensive supports are sometimes needed when dealing with these issues.

The response is difficult, but ignoring the problem doesn’t alleviate it either. They aren’t just protecting their talent from doing something unsafe, but taking an active role in providing them with additional support. Whether that means additional counseling, check-ins and opening up the means of communication, it is a start.

The problem is, does allowing talent to take medication that can aid in one area but stimulates another one to represent a contravention of the wellness policy? This is where the company needs to look at whether or not medication is simply a black and white area. Is being progressive more important, or do you remain steadfast to ensure that athletes are free from any medication? It’s a rather challenging issue that faces the company.

With all that has been done to study the human mind and how one’s actions, and the decisions that lead to them, can’t be laid directly at their feet, what is the next logical step? Wanting to act in a preventative manner by preventing terrible incidents from happening in the future does not necessarily help those suffering today. In Mauro Ranallo’s case, he has chosen to fight the stigma attached to mental illness and raised awareness that dealing with anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD or any other brain disorder is difficult to live with. One has to think other have, like Benoit, suffered a number of concussions, and these men and women are enduring effects on their state of mind and their ability to make decisions. There is a concussion protocol, but the problem is what steps are in place to ensure that they are still in the right state of mind when making the decisions they do.

Mental illness doesn’t end in a day, a week or a month. Men, women, and children are faced with a huge burden that they can’t quite explain, and others don’t understand them. Will WWE ever reconsider their stance on Benoit? It isn’t likely, but we would like to think that there are men and women under their employ that will be faced with circumstances that aren’t under their control. We can only hope they get to them at the right time.

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