'We're not talking about this': actors spotlight industry's mental health stigma

It is practically a professional requirement that actors be emotional and vulnerable, but only recently has protecting their mental wellbeing become a priority

Actor and playwright Milly Thomas is sick of the image of the tortured artist. “There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about depression,” she says. But Thomas believes that the idea persists, particularly for performers. Actors are expected to expose themselves emotionally, often with little regard for how it affects their states of mind. At the same time, they work in a profession characterised by instability, in which self-worth often rests on their ability to get the next role.

Until recently, however, little attention had been paid to the relationship between acting and mental health. One of the reasons Thomas wrote her solo play Dust, an unflinching look at one young woman’s suicide, was because she was frustrated with reductive understandings of mental health. She recalls her own experience of depression: “I was very, very ill, but also completely able to get out of bed every day and go to work and do my job, and I think that’s a blessing and a curse. I just thought, ‘We’re not talking about this.’”

Thomas is not alone in feeling this way. In 2015, a survey by the Stage, Equity and Spotlight found that one in five people working in entertainment have actively sought help for their mental health – but this figure may well underestimate the true extent of the problems in the sector. Respondents to the survey, the majority of whom worked in theatre, identified issues such as performance anxiety, mood swings and depression. When asked about the state of their mental health, 46% described it as either poor or average.

One of the outcomes of this research was ArtsMinds, an information hub for people working in the creative industries. It’s part of a recent surge of interest in mental health and wellbeing in the arts. In September, London’s Park theatre announced a partnership with the mental health charity Mind to help its performers. A number of companies, theatres, drama schools and agents have signed up to the mental health charter for the performing arts.

Christian Edwards in Northern Broadsides’ Cyrano de Bergerac.
Not going through it alone … Christian Edwards in Northern Broadsides’ Cyrano de Bergerac. Photograph: Nobby Clark

TALK is a network set up by actors Christian Edwards and Harry Long and based at the Actors Centre. The premise is simple: actors and other theatre professionals meet up regularly to share experiences and support one another. It came out of Edwards’s own mental health struggles. “I think the first way to move on and start feeling better about things is just by talking, meeting others, and not going through it alone,” he says. “We wanted people to be able to compare notes with other actors in a frank way,” adds Long.

Research into the connection between acting and mental health is scant – a gap that actor Alice Brockway’s PhD on the subject is setting out to address. The goal is to come up with a set of best practice recommendations for working with actors with mental illnesses, while Brockway’s website Playing Sane is a space to talk frankly about these issues.

Anecdotally, at least, there seems to be a connection between the pressures of the profession and conditions such as depression and anxiety. “I think part of the thing about being in contact with your emotions as an actor is that we’re more susceptible to them taking over,” suggests Edwards. Thomas observes something similar, noting how common acting techniques can encourage harmful thought processes. “Anyone can think about something sad that happened when they were younger and have a good cry, but can you switch it off? Can you go into the next scene and be completely OK?” She thinks drama schools should teach actors how to step away from extreme emotional states, as well as how to access those emotions in the first place.

“Also, the profession in and of itself is very brutal,” points out Thomas. Unstable, insecure employment, long hours, unforgiving audition processes and the constant pressure to be at your best can all take their toll. “People spend a lot of time projecting their best selves, because that’s what the industry demands,” says Long. While emotions are important on stage, behind the scenes there’s a need to appear confident and capable. “Our job is to be vulnerable in front of an audience, but you’re not supposed to be vulnerable in any other way,” says Brockway. Part of the problem, she suggests, is that in a saturated profession, actors can be seen as somewhat disposable: “Why deal with it if there’s just another actor in the background anyway?” Edwards agrees: “We don’t want to appear like we have a vulnerability that will mean that we’re not as reliable as somebody else, because there are just so many of us.”

Harry Long, right, with Rosie Armstrong in Pentabus Theatre Company’s This Land in 2016.
‘We wanted people to be able to compare notes with other actors in a frank way’ … Harry Long, right, with Rosie Armstrong in Pentabus Theatre Company’s This Land in 2016. Photograph: Richard Stanton

Brockway points the finger at established yet emotionally damaging rehearsal practices. “Many of these methods, they’re donkey’s years old, they haven’t been updated in any way in line with what we now know about psychology and about how the brain works,” she says. There is also that enduring idea that great actors are supposed to struggle. “I get very upset with this notion of having to suffer for your art,” says Thomas. “They’re called plays; I don’t know why we don’t play.”

While the industry now feels more open to dialogue around mental health, there’s a danger that it’s all talk and no action. Employers, ultimately, are the ones who need to make a commitment to change. “It’s very important that producers and theatre companies and other people working in the business are now being more open and saying we support people with mental health problems,” says Edwards. Thomas proposes that all theatres should have in-house therapy available for actors, following a model that the National Theatre is beginning to pioneer. “I think also maybe there need to be guidelines around what we should and shouldn’t ask or say,” adds Thomas.

Everyone I speak to agrees that there’s still a long way to go. “The shifts are so, so minuscule, but there are shifts there,” says Thomas. “We eventually have to get to that place where we can say ‘How are you today?’ and not feel squeamish about the answer, or not feel frightened about having to give an answer.”


Catherine Love

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
People in performing arts twice as likely to have depression, Equity finds
Performing arts practitioners’ union says Covid exacerbated contributory factors such as job insecurity and low pay

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

11, May, 2022 @11:01 PM

Article image
Edinburgh festival shows examine mental health – with sticky tape and silliness
After the recent fringe hits Every Brilliant Thing and Fake It ’Til You Make It, a new crop of theatre productions are taking startling approaches to exploring mental illness

Lyn Gardner

14, Aug, 2017 @2:13 PM

Article image
When the fringe is no joke: minding your mental health in Edinburgh
Performing at the festival can be a taxing experience. Objectively Funny has created a peer support network that turns attention offstage

Rachael Healy

20, Aug, 2019 @6:00 PM

Article image
‘There was a distinct lack of help’: can theatre clean up its act on mental health?
Raffaella Covino is leading the charge for change in an industry whose workers do unstable jobs under unprecedented pressure

Anya Ryan

13, Aug, 2021 @10:39 AM

Article image
Can picture books meet the crisis in children's mental health?
With more and more children seeking psychological help, Matt Haig is one of a wave of authors trying to reach troubled youngsters with stories

Donna Ferguson

18, Oct, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
'Improv saved my life': the comedy classes helping people with anxiety
Once the domain of aspiring performers, improv courses are increasingly being sought out by students experiencing mental health problems

Rachael Healy

20, Dec, 2017 @1:30 PM

Article image
It’s good to talk about mental health. But is it enough? | Eva Wiseman
With Princes William and Harry speaking up about the death of their mother, mental health awareness has had a much needed boost. But it’s what happens next that really counts, says Eva Wiseman

Eva Wiseman

14, May, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Mark Gatiss: 'We talk more about mental illness but the stigma hasn't gone away'
The star of Nottingham Playhouse’s The Madness of George III, streamed for National Theatre at Home, talks about royalty, lockdown and theatre’s future

Interview by Arifa Akbar

10, Jun, 2020 @11:33 AM

Article image
Elephant in the Room: staring down the stigma of black men's mental health
In his dance-theatre solo about a young working-class man, Lanre Malaolu draws on his own experiences with depression

Bridget Minamore

01, Apr, 2019 @9:39 AM

Article image
Surge in teenagers self-poisoning renews mental health concerns
Almost two in three poisonings are intentional – up 50% in past 20 years – with young women most affected, data shows

Sarah Johnson

17, May, 2016 @4:26 PM