'Bipolar Rock n' Roller' Documentary
In addition to any teaching commitments I have in the law school, many of you will know that I have additional roles in relation to pastoral care and wellbeing. In the school, I act as the Senior Tutor – this broadly means that I ensure that we have a functioning personal tutor system, communicate with students about support services, and give advice to other staff on more complex/pressing issues. I also, as of September, have a faculty role as the Associate Dean for Student Experience.
There are a few reasons why I fulfil these roles, but it means that I see a lot of students, with a range of circumstances. This could be a student who wants to check in about their academic progress, or a notification of a physical, or mental health matter. The nature of the roles means that you are driven to try and be as supportive as you can, and want to help students to improve, whatever that situation might be.
For some matters, this is relatively straightforward. If a student wants to look to improve their written work, you can read a sample, and explain tips and tricks that would help you, if you were the marker, to view it more favourably. If a student is not sure about a future career, I can discuss various options, and use anecdotes to explain what my own cohort of university friends have gone on to do, which doesn’t involve going into practice. A student might have experienced a physical health matter – you can make sure the student updates their circumstances administratively, and check in to see how they are coping.
The one which is more tricky, but most important for the overall experience, is mental health matters. From personal experience, I know it can be a big step to ask for assistance, and be confident. The nature of mental health matters means that they encourage you to be more insular, isolated, which makes the situation worse. Yet one of the limits that I have (for want of a better way of explaining this) is that I am not a trained counsellor. A lot of the discussion here is encouraging students to access professional support, and to emphasise that they shouldn’t repeat the mistakes that I did during my studies. The snapshot that you get is also a short meeting – you inherently don’t see them at their absolutely most vulnerable. That’s not to say that you outright want to, but it means that my experience of seeing what actually happens to someone experiencing a mental health matter is limited. I have friends who have experienced anxiety, but this, again, is limited, and I'm conscious not to launch into 'Personal Development Adviser' mode.
In what might be an awkward segue (not Segway), I still, in spite of their many, many, many flaws, follow World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). The automatic reaction to this is to hear “you know it’s fake, right?” and yes, it is pre-determined. However, it is one of the few mediums where you get to watch some background politics playing out on the screen. It’s more the stories around the show (who is in good graces, and why – who has annoyed management, and is being ‘buried’) which are more interesting.
For all of their flaws (running shows in Saudi Arabia for money, classifying wrestlers as independent contractors instead of as employees, recently firing/furloughing a reported 40% of their workforce but still paying shareholders a $0.12 cent dividend on shares which would have kept them employed and being classed as an essential business by the state of Florida after paying $18 million into the governor’s super PAC...I could go on) the one consistent saving grace is the ‘developmental’ programme, NXT. Their Takeover shows are consistently excellent, and a large part of this is the commentary, and just how much he gets into the show, which you can see in this footage (I believe this is a camera set up for backstage to see/communicate with the commentators - it does involve a bit of shouting, so you might want to just turn the volume down a notch first).
This is where the link back to mental health. The lead ‘play by play’ commentator for the shows is Mauro Ranallo, who lives with bipolar disorder. Ranallo also commentates on boxing for HBO, and on Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). He is truly excellent at what he does – WWE even have a Ranallo t-shirt you can buy. His role is to explain the stories, identify the moves, and keep the commentary ticking over with his co-commentators. The main thing that you want from a commentator, though, is to be a fan themselves, and project that enthusiasm to the listener. It can make all the difference – as an example, I am also a cricket fan. When the BBC has radio rights (to home test matches, and, I think the Ashes) Test Match Special is an absolute delight to listen to. During lockdown, I’ve listened to the final hour of TMS commentary for the Ben Stokes/Jack Leach last wicket stand on the Headingley Ashes test last summer, but have also watched the same event with Sky commentary. The radio commentary is better by far.
To Ranallo’s credit, he is very open about his diagnosis, and how it impacts him. There have been some high-profile examples during his time with the company where he has had to take time off, in order to recover and come back fit and healthy. For me, though, the best way to understand how he operates and struggles with this is to watch the Showtime documentary ‘Bipolar Rock ‘n’ Roller’, which is free to watch on YouTube here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VT_5XcJiPo). The trailer is embedded below.
The documentary really does not pull any punches. It explains how it manifested (Ranallo lost a very close childhood friend when he was a teenager, which was the trigger), it has interviews with his family members and friends (explaining the times in which he was hospitalised and experiencing manic episodes), and shows how harsh he is on himself after calling a show. There are physical manifestations of what he experiences, which are on display.
These aren’t pleasant to watch, but it does encourage you to reflect on how you can be more empathetic in understanding what people are going through, and the support that they actually want. It’s a way for me to understand the impact that a mental health matter can have for students away from our short meeting. It also makes me reflect on how lucky I was to have not suffered the same thing, in losing a close friend/family member at a time in my life when I was susceptible to developing a serious mental health matter. You also don’t always know what is going on in someone’s life. Social media, for example, can be great for certain things, whether it is to see what your uni friends are up to years after you graduate, or as a way to access information quickly. However, without meaning to entirely delve into a ‘be kind’ debate, it does prompt you to think about how others react to your words/posts (there’s a point at which he reads through Twitter after a show).
Equally, though, one of the things which I took from the documentary is that Ranallo, at his best, is able to channel the energy and passion that he has for the sport in a way which people enjoy. It’s a double edged sword – it does impact his life, but it’s the thing that makes him good/makes him stick out from the pack. He does still live with bipolar disorder, and makes no secret of that, but it doesn’t defeat him, and he is incredibly successful, in part because of the impact it has on his life, not in spite of it.
It's not an easy watch, but I'm glad I have seen it. Aside from anything else, his back story is really interesting, but his honesty and candour, on display in this documentary, is especially admirable.