Having ranted several times this week over what I perceive to be the hypocrisy of Equity suddenly launching a mental health charter, I’ve chosen to timeline the events that led me to this annoyance.
So Equity’s charter was launched after the publication of this paper published in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2022/may/12/performing-arts-depression-equity-covid-job-insecurity However it seems to me that the review that has prompted them into action has failed to address the number of people that enter our industry that are predisposed to mental illness but this is surely a key component to understanding the complexities of mental health issues within our industry.
We all have mental health – but the fight around breaking down the stigma around mental illness has been completely hijacked and sidelined by the media’s reporting of mental health and well-being and stops us once again from dealing with the real issues.
Back in 2014, I started speaking publicly about the fact that having a clinician doing the counselling at The MTA had led us to discover that seemingly a large percentage of our students had some underlying mental illness. I questioned whether we were just “unlucky” in our cohorts, or whether this was a trend replicated in other colleges. Nobody would engage in this conversation other than to tell me that I was being stupid. Around the same time, a survey on the other side of the world discovered that 1 in 3 of our industry were predisposed to a mental illness, much higher than the 1 in 4 of civvy street. On discovering that fact I actively started campaigning to try and get more colleges to address the issue, as it felt more than coincidental that this tiny college in North London had the same findings as a survey in a country on the other side of the world. The common factor must be our industry.
In 2016 we attempted to have a conference of drama colleges to speak to colleagues to find out if their experiences were the same as ours and to attempt to put in a plan of action to address the issue. As is documented the meeting was poorly attended, but with the people that did bother to turn up it was brutally obvious that the issue extended far beyond The MTA, it’s just that The MTA were naming it, and attempting to deal with it differently. It should be noted that 2 Equity reps were in attendance at that conference and both heard the same stories as I did that day. . . go figure.
When I muted the idea of a charter as a result of that meeting I was told by an Equity rep that my approach was wrong, that Equity could not get behind such a campaign because the remit was too large. When I attempted to put a case against this, I was told that I was too difficult to work with and therefore they would not have anything else to do with the campaign.
In July 2016 we launched the #time4change mental health charter – attempting to educate people on what mental illness really was. I literally begged Equity and Spotlight to get involved in this campaign and both refused. I asked them to distribute the charter out to its members (which would have cost them nothing), and both refused. At the time Equity were adamant that they were about to deal with the issue with their Arts Mind website (which launched some time that same year – but which also clearly served a different purpose). It was around a year later that Equity eventually sent something out to its members about the charter. A low-key aside in one of their newsletters.
In 2014 it was clear that our industry was seeing an increase (or finally recognising perhaps) in the number of people that entered our industry with an underlying mental illness. Seeing those numbers rising year on year I blogged at the start of the pandemic that the mental illness epidemic that already existed in the UK was going to explode after the lockdowns. People who would usually keep busy to stop themselves from focussing on their minds were suddenly left in silence and alone.
Over on The MTA’s Instagram, we’ve done a series of interviews with students that were diagnosed with a mental illness at college. All of them say the same – the symptoms were there from an early age but doctors refused to believe that they were ill. In other words, there are countless adolescents being dismissed with “growing pains” who could be getting early intervention help with mental illnesses. An intervention that could have prevented a later in life crisis.
Our industry is the ultimate escape route for many – it’s a place to find your ‘tribe’, like-minded people that are attempting to fit in. Lots are running away from difficult pasts, but I’ve come to believe that lots are also running away from difficult ‘mental states’. Anxiety and depression are rife, but are these created by the industry, or were they already loaded into people’s DNA before this career was even an option?
We’ve come to almost celebrate a declaration of anxiety as opposed to encouraging people to seek medical help in order to make their lives more manageable. People who are already fighting an undiagnosed mental illness will be low on resilience to deal with all the other stuff that our industry throws at us – and yes this includes appalling treatment towards freelancers, stress over pay, working conditions and all the other things in the new survey.
My reason for ranting is that I don’t want to wait a decade until all the HR stuff has been dealt with for people to discover that there’s still a mental health crisis in our industry. I’ve already witnessed too many times how devasting a mental health crisis can be. Our NHS is simply not equipped to deal with a crisis (as strange as that sounds). I’ve documented before how I’ve seen somebody have to get arrested in a bid to get the right mental health care as they were considered not ill enough to be taken into hospital, but clearly not well enough to function successfully in society. Or what about the ED sufferers, considered not ‘thin’ enough to access the services that they truly need?
We shouldn’t pathologise regular hardships, but nor should we minimise ill health just because society’s stigma has stopped us from recognising early symptoms.
In 2019 I (ironically) was asked to give a keynote speech at Equity’s ArtsMind Symposium. I sat and listened when people made the exact same discoveries that I had been campaigning about years earlier. I spoke about finding out that BAPAM had published a paper about the mental health crisis in our industry. A study that had concluded that best practices for drama colleges should include a clinician-led service around pastoral care. I had noted in my speech that I found it odd that The MTA had never been approached as a case study in this review given that we had been running a clinician-led service since we started. I’ll note here though that it’s now 3 years since that speech and we are still the only college to have a clinician-led service!
Equity, Spotlight, the Federation of Drama Schools are all working within their own little echo chambers, afraid to open up the discussions to the outsiders that could be perceived to be disrupters waiting to smash down those gates that they all keep so well. I believe that The MTA has paid quite a high price by me unwittingly being one of those disrupters.
So forgive me when I rant – but it’s been 8 years now of shouting about the same things, and STILL nothing is being done about it. If Equity had gotten behind our campaign years ago we might now have one of the most robust industries around.
There are several organisations trying to change the narrative, but that noise shouldn’t come from “us”, it should come from the organisations that actually have the authority to make a change, not from the people on the outside constantly banging on the door of the establishment.