Eleven years ago, my partner was in graduate school earning his Masters in Fine Arts when his classmate endured a psychotic break in rehearsal one day. I remember the call I received when he told me what had happened.
“What are they doing to support you?” I asked.
“Uh.. well, nothing.” He replied.
He quickly had to get off the phone to head to another class. I was shocked when the call ended. At the time, I was earning my Masters in Social Work, where many of the conversations I was having in class were centered around how to provide proper support to vulnerable populations and so I was appalled at how his school failed to respond to this crisis in an appropriate manner. I assumed, incorrectly, that all schools employed mental health professionals, but as I came to find, this was not the case. Furthermore, it seemed his school had no policy or procedure in place for how to handle these situations. There was no process group, no discussion of what had transpired, no one to address questions my partner and his classmates had. It was as if life, classes, and study just continued as usual. Eventually, the school did provide therapy to the class; however, it came much too late.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this moment was a significant one because it was the first time I realized that there was a problem in the entertainment and creative arts industries in terms of supporting mental health and well-being.
Contrary to popular belief, an entertainment career is not always glamorous. The reality is that there is a pandemic of exploitation, stigma, and silence that permeates the industry at all levels. Artists enter the industry because of their interest in telling human stories, but telling these stories can come at a cost to their health and well-being. Unfortunately, this has become almost expected for creatives who wish to make a living doing what they love.
Over the years I have heard countless stories from friends, colleagues, and clients, that demonstrate how the industry has failed to respond appropriately to mental health needs, let alone promote an atmosphere of well-being. I have heard stories of burnout, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, depression, debilitating performance, and audition anxiety. I have also heard of discrimination, sexism, racism, long work hours, financial uncertainty, and unrealistic expectations, especially for crew members. What’s worse is that people who find themselves in these circumstances receive little to no support from the agencies, productions, and studios that employ them to do the work. Furthermore, many industry professionals report that they are afraid to ask for mental health support or speak out because they fear losing their job and any future work potential.
As I write this, there is a labor movement underway to demand change within the industry. The International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is the union that supports skilled behind-the-scenes technicians and artisans employed by networks and streaming platforms. Recently, IATSE has been in contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) Association to advocate for living wages, adequate sleep, and meal breaks. The talks have not gone well and have influenced many workers to speak out against conditions across the film and television industry. Additionally, the Covid pandemic has put even more strain on a workforce that is reaching a breaking point. These industry employees are crucial to producing content that streaming services like Amazon, Netflix, Apple, and Hulu produce and from which they continue to profit greatly. The average consumer of creative content has no idea what occurs behind the scenes of some of their most treasured streaming platforms, and this is a problem on which I hope to continue to shed light.
Over the past year, I have been looking into the research that exists with regard to the mental health of artists and creatives in the entertainment sector. I have found very little data; however, what does exist is disturbing. For example, a 2019 study of entertainment industry workers in the US concluded that over 80% of respondents experienced anxiety and depression and that these workers were 4x more likely to consider suicide than the general population. The study also found that 40% of entertainment workers used substances to cope with toxic stress brought on by working conditions, rejection, financial insecurity, and reminders of their own lived experience of trauma when dealing with traumatic content.
A year ago, actor Michael K Williams spoke to Men’s Health about his work in Lovecraft country and said that the content in the show “woke up intergenerational, Unfortunately, last.” Last month he died of a drug overdose, becoming another name in a long list of artists who left us too soon. Chris Farley, Phillip Seymor Hoffman, Prince, Amy Winehouse, and Heath Ledger are just a few of the names of people in the industry that we lost to a drug overdose. It’s painful to think of the incredible work these talented humans would have contributed to our world if they were still living.
Looking To the Future
Here’s the deal. It doesn’t have to be this way! We can create bridges that support people’s mental health and well-being while also fostering their ability to create content that we all love to consume. We live in a time of reckoning, and we can start to unpack the complexities of mental health and provide better support for artistic workers. This will require that consumers pay attention and that a movement is created.
Together we can work towards a culture of support that moves us all towards a healthier collective.
As with any movement, awareness is key. You can do your part to create healthier work environments for entertainment workers by:
Educating your friends and family. Spreading information on social media is an easy way to do this. In fact, this is how the #metoo movement grew so quickly, so fast. You can start by sharing this article far and wide with the hashtag #wemustdobetter
Write letters to your elected officials asking them to support policies and reform.
Look up your local chapter of IATSE and write them a letter of support.
Write a letter to the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. You can start here: https://www.amptp.org/contactus.html
Educate yourself on the issue and share the information with others! Click here to listen to Episode Four of the Lights On! Mental Health Podcast about the IATSE Strike. Also check out other podcasts that explore the issue including Mental Health in Film and Head Above Water.
Follow @iastories on Instagram and like, save and share posts frequently.
Do research on your favorite shows. Who is the producer? How were cast and crew treated? Write letters to producers and networks expressing concern.
Head on over to www.therapeuticbridges.com to learn more today.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1–800–273–8255 or 911 immediately.
2019 Survey to Assist in the Development of a Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Initiative. (Behind the Scenes Charity, 2019). Retrieved from: https://wp.behindthescenescharity.org/mental-health-and-suicide-prevention-initiative/2019-industry-survey-summary-of-key-findings/
Lovecraft Country Sent Michael K. Williams to the Darkest Place of His Career. (Men’s Health, October 19, 2020.) Retrieved from: https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a34250169/michael-k-williams-lovecraft-country/