The Show Cannot Always Go On by Alison Wyman, CEO Actors’ Benevolent Fund

Attention to mental health in the workplace has never been higher and mental health awareness has worked its way into our everyday consciousness. However, the performing arts sector, including actors, may not be as far ahead as it needs to be.

In research released this week by the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) it showed mental health consultations had quadrupled since 2019. The comparison with pre-Covid numbers showed a 396% increase in mental health consultations.

According to a review of more than 100 academic studies by Equity, those working in the arts are twice as likely to experience depression as the general population. In other research, suicide has been reported to be double the national average, with suicidal ideation recorded to be a staggering six times greater. Further studies have found 60% of actors report experiencing anxiety. This compares to just 6% in the general population.

So why is this?

Certainly, it can be a stressful career to pursue, with antisocial working hours caused by touring and scheduling and the worry about when the next role will come along made worse by an acute cost of living crisis. But perhaps at the heart of the issue is the concept of perseverance at all costs: “the show must go on.”

For so many years this has been an adage the acting community has lived by – performers pushing themselves even when their mental health is not right. Because it’s a career born of a passion, there is a view that it’s a privilege to do this job, which in many ways it is. But this has a dark side: an unwillingness for actors to admit when they are in pain, when they need time out, or really need help, be that from colleagues or a medical professional.

At the ABF, we believe it’s healthy to have these debates and have increasingly seen people coming to us for help for mental health issues. In a previous report by the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM), Julia Grieshofer, actor and PhD researcher at University College London, discussed the subliminal reasons for poor performer mental health. Among many factors, Grieshofer saw an overarching theme amongst artists - a reluctance to speak up. Fears of compromising professionalism, high expectations, and competition make artists averse to properly talking about their mental health.

The world has changed regarding mental health, and the acting community and the challenges it faces have changed too. That absolute dedication to the craft, that self-belief in the face of rejection, and the innate desire to delight and captivate audiences are what make this profession so important. The creative industries in the U.K. continue to be recognised globally and we continue to produce amazing talent. So, we must adapt to ensure the next generation are mentally prepared to do the job they love and know that it’s ok to take time out, as the audience will always be there.

The recently appointed President of Rada, David Harewood, has been refreshingly open about the mental health struggles he faced as a young actor, having been sectioned at one point of his life. In his new position he’s been clear how modern actors need to be prepared. He told The Guardian, “I had some problems when I left and I think it is incumbent upon myself and Rada to teach resilience and prepare students: give them financial skills – tax skills, for example – things that we were never prepared for.”

This practical approach is part of ensuring good mental health is maintained along with David’s own openness and honesty meaning the profession is talking. At the Actors Benevolent Fund as well as financial aid we also encourage one to one time with our members – we want them to speak to us and they do. A friendly conversation can achieve a lot particularly in this area. We want to help dismantle the stigma around mental health in our great industry and a crucial first step is accepting that the show cannot always go on.

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