Mental health isn’t just an edgy genre for new writing. It’s not a topic to debate and feel moved by when discussing only fictional characters and their sufferings. It’s a pervasive issue that affects so many people, on and off stage, and an issue that the arts industry often, despite good intentions, makes a lot fucking worse.
I get it, the arts are critically underfunded and a creative’s passion is what drives them. Early mornings, late nights, constant emailing and phoning, being caffeinated up to the eyeballs and surviving off two hours sleep a night during production season. It’s the norm of this industry, it’s even glorified to some extent; but it’s not healthy and it’s making people incredibly ill.
Productivity guilt is real, and as creatives we constantly feel that pressure. If we’re not running several projects at the same time, while also thinking about the next big one, going to watch several shows a week, networking and feeling incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities we’ve been given, then we are somehow not good enough. I know many young creatives who went down this path until they reached the point of burnout and became incredibly unwell, myself included.
You have to work ridiculously hard in the arts to be successful and when you’re hungry for that it’s very easy to get sucked into a world that makes you feel that if you’re not committing every hour of your life to your passion that you’re somehow doing things wrong. When relationships with friends, partners, and finances start to suffer as a result of an all consuming industry you’re constantly met with “That’s just the way it is in the arts.”
No. We need to stop this narrative. A job, no matter how passionate you are, should not have to make you feel pressured into sacrificing your mental well being and relationships with loved ones just for a sliver of success .
After some time out and plenty of time to think I decided to re-assess my relationship with the arts. Was this the wrong industry for me? Was I just too weak to cope with all of the pressures that comes with it? Or was it actually that there is a culture of overworking and suffering in silence that is just ingrained in this industry?
And then CB4 happened, our theatre company set up by 4 best friends, all who had similar experiences to myself and were tired of the way things were being done. When we lay down the foundations of our little theatre company our number one priority was to look after ourselves and to be open and honest. That meant conversations about how we could best support each other and sharing our weaknesses and fears in a safe non judgemental space.
I’ll be honest with you, sometimes it's uncomfortable having to share the bits of yourself that you dislike with other people, but my god was it good to know that if I needed to cry, or take myself off quietly for a day, or just needed to be spoken to gently that all those things would happen without question, and vice versa to all members of our company. Just having an open conversation about mental health and giving yourself some basic education about it will have an incredibly positive effect on your company well being. Who’d have thought it?!
I am now going to hammer home my favourite point in capitals because it makes me feel like a big man - YOU DO NOT NEED MONEY AND QUALIFICATIONS TO EDUCATE YOURSELF ABOUT MENTAL ILLNESS. THERE ARE PLENTY OF FREE RESOURCES OUT THERE. I’LL PUT LINKS FOR SOME NOW BECAUSE I’M NICE.
Mind are an incredible charity. They have free resources here to help educate you about common and uncommon mental illnesses.
How you can support someone with a mental illness.
Mental Health UK have great resources about helping people with mental health in the workplace. From how to support a colleague, to managing a person experiencing mental health issues.
ACAS has great resources on all areas of supporting people in the workplace with their mental health.
SANE are an incredible charity that provide simple ways on how to use positive mental health language and how to not treat a person living with a mental illness or poor mental health.
At CB4 we’re bonded by a shared passion for making the arts a more accessible place for those who suffer from mental health conditions. We’ve had many a conversation over a pint about how we’ve felt like we can’t participate in projects because we know we won’t have proper support. We’ve also had many angry rants over even more pints about how in the past we’ve been made to feel that we weren’t working hard enough, weren’t dedicated enough, or weren’t talented enough to juggle extreme workloads, pressures and more.
Turns out we weren’t actually supported by an industry that values output over everything else. So I’ve decided to put together some points that would really help better support artists, administrators, producers, actors, and every role in between. And if reading this you’re thinking “But that’s just not going to be able to fit in with how our industry works” – then we need to change how our industry works.
1. Make sure everyone in your organisation has basic training
As Em has said above, it's easy, affordable, and vital. Check out the links she posted.
2. Build restorative time and space into your schedules
This industry works to ridiculously short timelines, which only makes people more stressed. Stress kills people, even if you don't suffer from a MH condition. Make sure there’s a physical or digital space your team can access which is separate from the project where they can give themselves the time to recuperate, and make sure you allow them this time - don’t let them feel guilty for “not working”. This is the point where I feel like I’m going to have people raising questions about how this can fit in with the way we currently works, and this is where I reiterate that WE HAVE TO CHANGE HOW THIS INDUSTRY WORKS. Just because something has always worked one way doesn’t mean it’s the most effective, supportive or empathetic way
3. Check in with people
Don’t check in to see how they’re getting on with their workload, ask them how they’re feeling – if they’re feeling supported, where they may need more space/time/support. Don’t do this with an ulterior motive, we’ll be able to anxiously feel it.. People who feel genuinely cared for and supported on a personal level will more likely be honest with how their feeling, allowing workloads to be shifted/shared, and space to be given to restore.
4. Ask if people have access needs and provide these
Access is more than physical. Depending on what condition they have, they may need extra support. No one knows someone’s needs like themselves; ask.
5. Feedback and debriefing
We already do this in the arts but often structured in terms of what went ‘well’ (i.e. made money) and what ‘didn’t’ (i.e. lost money). We need to move away from this capitalist structure as a way of measuring success. Did everyone feel supported? Did they have the tools they needed in order to work and rest in the best way possible? What could be done next time to ensure this is not only carried through, but built upon?
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I don’t profess to be a trained counsellor. These are points I’ve developed through my experience and through the experiences of those around me. These are points that if listened to and implemented would have made me and my friends feel a lot more supported, and less likely to have anxiety attacks at work or consider giving up on an arts career all together.
It’s time to readdress our relationship with mental health in the arts. We need to put the empathetic energy we carry into performances into our relationships with co-workers and employees. And we need to take this as seriously as any other issue facing the sector.