The film and TV industry desperately need better mental health supportby Nicola Thorp
When a recent report revealed that mental health issues within the TV and film industry are more than 20 per cent higher than the national average, I wish the findings had taken me by surprise. But they didn’t.
I’ve worked in the industry for 10 years now and, like many actors, during that time I was mostly not working.
Paid work is in short supply by comparison to the abundance of actors waiting for their break, and long periods of unemployment take their toll on your self-esteem.
By the time you get work, you’re so grateful for the job, for the sense of purpose, for the money, that you feel pressured to keep quiet about any health issues that you might be struggling with – both physical and mental.
I’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming from set even if my appendix were about to explode. Whether that’d be down to conditioned ‘professionalism’ or pure idiocy I’m unsure, but the thought of taking a day off makes me feel ill.
Industry leaders are now pledging to invest £2.5million in an urgent action plan to improve the mental health of those working in entertainment.
But how far can such a contribution go to change an industry entrenched with practices and workplace culture that are fundamentally unhealthy for your mind?
The old adages ‘time is money’ and ‘the show must go on’ are felt in the atmosphere of TV and film studios. They hang low in the air, piling on the pressure to keep quiet about anything that may delay proceedings.
Unless you’re lucky enough to land a job in a long-running TV series, an acting or presenting gig will likely only last a few months and then it’s back to square one all over again.
Being in front of the camera and in the public gaze comes with added pressure on self-image, along with the possibility of having a private life becoming public.
For each person we see onscreen, there is a team of camera operators, electricians, costume designers, make up technicians, boom operators, editors, prop makers and stunt co-ordinators who work far longer hours for a fraction of the recognition or the money.
The crew are the first to arrive and the last to leave and unless they’re a full-time employee of a production company, job security is negligible. Segregation between departments is common and provides the perfect breeding ground for bullying if left untreated.
The report by the Film and Television Charity questioned more than 9,000 industry professionals and found that 55 per cent had contemplated suicide, compared to a national average of 20 percent, while one in 10 had attempted suicide compared to seven per cent nationally. The data also revealed that people working in broadcasting are three times more likely to self-harm.
I know there’s been times when I’ve worried about colleagues, as well as myself.
I know people at the top of their game who have never felt fulfilment
There’s no doubt that the industry attracts people who are more vulnerable to mental health issues. Many of us come into this line of work out of a need to be fulfilled, either creatively or emotionally, and gratification is hard to come by.
I know people at the top of their game who have never felt fulfilment – it’s the tragic flaw that brings in a healthy pay packet but an unhealthy mindset.
It’s rare to find people who can strike a good work/life balance, as the demands of industry rarely allow for it. One either lives a Sisyphean existence or burns out like Icarus.
Drink and drug culture also holds a negative impact in the broadcasting world, despite it feeling characteristically positive at the time.
We’re a far cry from the ‘good old days’ of boozy lunches and returning to set a bit squiffy, but drink culture is still rife in broadcasting. Only now it seems to be out of dire need rather than frivolity.
Pledging a couple of million to an honourable cause is all well and good, but money alone doesn’t change behaviours.
Luckily, the top players in the TV and film game have agreed to assess the mental health crisis and take action to improve working conditions.
Like any culture shift, it needs for everyone to take part if true change is to happen.
Cast and crew need to be clear about who they can talk to about issues they may be facing and feel reassured that they will be met with compassion and support. When out of work, initiatives like the proposed 24 hour helpline will prove invaluable.
When I worked as a regular in a TV series I was fortunate to have had the support and advice of an excellent HR team, cast liaison and press department. Whenever I was unemployed, the only HR representative I could talk to was the one in the mirror, and she gave me a scathing appraisal.
If it wasn’t for my agents, I’d have lost the plot.
In an industry full of fleeting, superficial connections, finding people who get you is priceless. Through PR nightmares, unemployment, break-ups, emotional high and lows: answering my calls is no doubt like Russian roulette, but they are there for me regardless. They have been on my team since day one and it has made all the difference.
I can only hope that the Film and TV Charity initiative will ensure that similar assistance, advice and support is available for more people in the industry.