Since 1970, a growing number of pro wrestler deaths have not been due to natural causes. Accidents, drug or alcohol abuse, and in more recent times, suicides, have been steadily contributing to their untimely demise. Have the physical and personal demands of the industry, taken its toll on their mental health? From gunshot wounds, drug overdoses or other self-inflicted means, over 20 known pro wrestlers have taken their own lives. Aside from their professions and affiliations in the world of wrestling, what did these men and women “of the ring,” have in common? Earlier this year, the shocking news of Reid Fliehr’s death, baffled the world. He had just returned home from an all Japan wrestling tour, which he had been involved with since 2008, when was found dead in a North Carolina hotel room. The autopsy report revealed Reid overdosed on a lethal combination of heroin and prescription medications. His father, former 16 Time World Heavyweight Wrestling Champion, Ric Flair, along with the rest of the family, grieve the loss.
The Effects of Mental Strain, Injury, and Thwarted Ambition
Wrestling is a year-round sport. Unlike other athletes who enjoy “off” seasons, professional wrestlers have very little down time, to rest, lead personal lives or recover from injuries. The physical rigors these athletes endure, ranging from multiple-story falls to full on 400 pound body slams, are perhaps much more perilous than other contact sports would allow. Serious injuries, even disabilities due to stunts, have become more and more prevalent. While torn ligaments, bruised ribs or concussions happen all the time in the ring, mental illnesses, on the other hand, are much trickier to spot or treat. One of the most famous and tragic pro-wrestling legacies began with Jack Adkisson (ring name Fritz Von Erich.) In the 1950’s, he invented the move called “the iron clamp,” and was patriarch of pro-wrestling family known as the Von Erich’s. He fathered and trained five sons who followed in his footsteps, and went on to compete in local and international tournaments, some of which gained worldwide titles and hall of fame status. In 1984, the so-called “Von Erich Curse” began to unfold. David died of mysterious causes. Mike, who most closely resembled David, was unable to cope with the pressure and overdosed on sleeping pills. Kerry, a.k.a Modern Day Warrior and later on, Texas Tornado, lost his leg to amputation, and had expressed he “heard his brothers calling.” He shot himself in the chest, at the age 33. Chris, the youngest, and perhaps the smallest, and most fragile of the brood, was overwhelmed by the pressure of living up to his brother’s accomplishments, and shot himself in the head, just a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. David, Mike, Kerry and Chris, were all known for their rampant drug and alcohol abuse, aggressive behavior, and dark bouts of depression. The only surviving son, Kevin, a.k.a The Golden Warrior, who wrestled from 1976 to 1995, rose from the curse, and received WWE Hall Of Fame status in 2009.
Whether it stems from a fear of being debased by their colleagues and friends, or a deep-rooted desire to maintain a strong, tough, party-animal persona, the problem of mental health in professional wrestling, has slowly bubbled up to the surface. Unlike other sportsmen, wrestlers are also actors. They take on a character, to match a gimmick that relates to their wrestling persona, sometimes, one very far from their real-life traits. It can often be difficult for them to detach from their wrestling “character,” even long after retirement – as accurately portrayed by Mickey Rourke in the movie “The Wrestler”. There have been multiple reports of aging former pro wrestlers, who have suffered with bouts of mental illness, such as depression. It affects nearly 17% of the US population of 35 million seniors, aged 65 and older. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that most of these individuals have been suffering for much of their lives. In the case of retired pro wrestlers, as with other seniors, they are more likely to seek professional help for a physical ailment, and less likely to talk to someone or seek treatment regarding mental health concerns. These aging pro-wrestlers are so entrenched in their former ring names and on stage persona’s, that they now perceive substance abuse, fits of rage, and prolonged depression, as “normal” behavior. Could there be another contributing factor to their decaying mental faculties?
Steroids Affect Sanity and Vice Versa
According to a study published by the British Journal Of Sports Medicine, there is proof tying the use of anabolic-androgenic steroids to reduced mental health, in retired pro wrestlers. Over 20% of pro wrestlers who used anabolic-androgenic steroids, were more likely to have experienced substance abuse issues and a greater chance of exhibiting symptoms of depression or aggressive behavior, in their advanced age. It appears the mental health issues and steroid use, are part and parcel of a vicious cycle, in this sometimes theatrical and overtly high-impact sport.
— Claire Leonard