AEW fosters conversations about masculinity and mental health in wrestling
The wrestling company offers periodic trainings and discussions.
Professional wrestlers are promoted as heroes and villains, but the vulnerability of the men behind those personas has often been taboo.
The upstart All Elite Wrestling, a wrestling organization founded in 2019, is normalizing conversations about masculinity and mental health in a field where these issues have not regularly been discussed, and AEW owner and CEO Tony Khan is encouraging the wrestlers to be candid about their experiences.
The wrestlers aren't just taxing their bodies by grappling in the ring. Some of the athletes battle substance abuse and mental health struggles.
Jonathan Good, one of AEW's top performers as Jon Moxley, entered rehab in November 2021. He addressed the crowd with a promo upon his return in January. Jesse Guilmette, who performs under the ring name The Blade, wrote about struggling with depression, anxiety and confidence issues in an Instagram post last year.
"I think having a fun place to work where, you know, we create, like an environment where we really do care about the people here," Khan told ABC News. "We try to show it and make the locker rooms here places where people aren't going to dread coming in, and quite the opposite, where hopefully they look forward to seeing the other people that, you know, you get in the ring and fight."
Male suicides have risen since 2000, and 6 million men suffer from depression that is often not diagnosed, according to Mental Health America, an Alexandria, Virginia-based nonprofit.
Edward Moore, known to fans as Eddie Kingston, is an integral member of the new generation of wrestlers that is challenging the notion that alpha males must hide their emotions. The Yonkers brawler, known as The Mad King, opened up about his mental health struggles throughout his life in a November 2021 Player's Tribune profile.
He said he had suffered a panic attack following his well-received match against Miro at the All Out 2021 pay-per-view event and that he wanted to destigmatize mental health issues.
"We've lost enough people that, you know, I mean, in our personal lives, you know, away from wrestling, and a lot of us have lost people in wrestling we knew. And it's because no one talks," he told ABC News.
"And everybody has this stigma that they had to be tough and rough. And, you know what I mean; I can't let nobody see my weakness. So I can't then talk to people, you know, so you hold everything in. Then you find different ways of coping. For me, it was drinking a lot. Yeah, I mean, and I know, whatever it was, it was pills and everything like that."
AEW World Champion Hangman Adam Page, who has dubbed himself the Anxious Millennial Cowboy, has similarly been open.
"In the macho world of pro wrestling, those kinds of emotions are often the least explored and I think people were ready to see that," Page, whose real name is Stephen Blake Woltz, told ABC News.
There have been critics of the evolving changing guard. Page said that many were too heavily influenced by the past.
"Many are unable to take into account the cultural shift that's happened in relation to our attitudes toward even acknowledging our mental health, much less the idea that a character can go through those things without being seen as 'weak,'" he said.
Steve Borden has a unique perspective as a marquee performer who has wrestled in all the top organizations throughout his 30-plus year career as Sting, a mainstay since the 1990s with his signature "Crow" face paint. He credits his faith for turning his life around in 1998 after battling issues of sobriety, addiction and on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
"It wasn't until I got real and so I'm not going to pretend anymore. I'm gonna take this hat off, and oh, and this hat off. And then this hat and this sadness, depending on who I was with. I was a chameleon. And I'm just going to be Steve," he said.
"That's what I'm going to be. And so yeah, I paint my face and I'm a character. And I'm staying and I entertained. But the real man, Steve Borden, behind the mask is very transparent. Not afraid to talk about the real stuff. Not afraid to listen, either."
Megha Parekh, the chief legal counselor at AEW, also oversees HR and mental health initiatives for the company. AEW provides services that address mental well-being, periodic trainings and facilities discussions that touch upon race and cultural events.
Parekh was trained as a crisis counselor in 2018 and in suicide awareness in 2020.
"Our perspective is that if we want to get the best out of people, we gotta treat them like human beings. Every single human being has mental health that needs to be taken care of," Parekh said.
If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide or worried about a friend or loved one, help is available. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 [TALK] for free, confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.