I’ve read several conflicting articles over the past couple of weeks about how much better our industry is coping with mental health since the pandemic. Some claim that we’re really getting on top of it all now with lots of additional help being put in place, others claim that we’re still not doing enough, and we’re about to witness a massive era of crash and burn.

Now as the person that started campaigning for better education around mental health in drama training some 7 years ago now, and as someone that was instrumental in launching the #time4change mental health charter some 5 years ago I’m finding the conversations really difficult – and here’s why. We’re focused on the symptoms, not the cause. We’re working off the assumption that the industry is making people ill, whereas it seems to me that with 1 in 3 in the arts susceptible to mental illness, shouldn’t we be moving a few steps backwards and try to deal with the fact that people who might already be experiencing symptoms of mental illnesses are entering our industry. For sure our industry makes it worse, but for lots of reasons, our industry attracts a certain demographic.

What am I basing this brazen statement on – 12 years of running a drama college with a clinician heading up my pastoral care team. I am truly gobsmacked at how many of my students over the years were attempting to deal with obvious mental illness symptoms and yet nobody had diagnosed them. Instead, there are countless stories of GPs, teachers, and even parents normalising their symptoms, putting it down to teenage angst etc when all the time they just needed treatment. I’ve witnessed first-hand the life-changing effect of treatments like CBT, talking therapy and sometimes where indicated, a chemical intervention. 

The trouble with the new culture of declaring your mental health is that we’re failing to build resilience and we’re failing to address the real issue. We all have crap days, and we all have days where we have to push through ‘a mood’ but for some, this is indicative of an illness. The answer isn’t necessarily to have a day off though. For example, if our students hit a crisis at college we support them to come in as much a possible. Physical exercise is one of the best endorphin hits around and my lot dance for 3.5 hours every morning.  For sure we can give them moments outside of the space to breathe, but then it’s back into the studio as soon as possible. Distraction is also really useful.

Now clearly there can’t and shouldn’t be blanket rules, this is not a black and white issue. For the student suddenly diagnosed with bipolar who is in a depressive episode, and who is attempting to get the right treatment, college is not the right environment for them, you can’t ‘push through’ that. So it’s about having a clinician on hand to advise us how best to help.

Anxiety is through the roof at the moment for all of us, but for some people, they’ve been living with anxiety their entire lives, so this is just the icing on a really big cake. Yet not many people seem to realise that anxiety is a treatable condition. So why learn to live with the symptoms when you could be living your life symptom-free? 

Some of these symptoms are incredibly nuanced, and would not be picked up by the much-lauded mental health first aiders, just like an underlying condition would not be picked up by a St John’s first aider.  Here’s the rub though there is no longer a shame about having a bad mental health day, but there’s still a shame in actually having a mental illness.

Until we address the taboo that some people were literally born with a genetic loading stacking the odds against them from the off (just like we’re genetically loaded to have other illnesses) then this is always going to be an unsatisfactory conversation.

The discussion around wellbeing has (I’ll say it again) hijacked the much-needed conversation around mental illness. As one of my students once said, if eating vegetables, taking nature hikes and yoga could have cured their depression then they shouldn’t have hit a major crisis. For them, the only solution was a medical intervention, their clinical depression needed a chemical reaction to rebalance them. No amount of broccoli, sea air and downward dog could replicate what their brain actually needed.

Early intervention is key, primary schools are slowly edging towards a whole school approach to mental health, in the interim though colleges should be the final safety net to catch people.