Friday, 18 March 2016

Mental Health in Drama Schools Conference

So after 4 years of quietly mentioning it, 2 years of positively shouting about it, and about 18 months of screaming in despair about it....I finally decided to do something positive about what I considered to be the plight of poor mental health provision in drama schools.  What better thing to do than to call a conference? To call together all the people interested in this area and then to brainstorm how to ensure that we improved things.

I won't 'go on' again, but the perceived understanding(taken from a variety of International Studies) is that 1out of every 3 people involved in the arts will have a mental health issue at some point in their lives.  This is higher than the National average of 1 in 4.  At The MTA we've always had a unique take on this area insomuch as we've made it one of the cornerstones of the course.  There is no stigma around Mental Health, all the students understand various mental health issues, and most importantly of all most check in with our Health and Welfare consultant at some point during their training (and indeed after).  H&W in this instance happens to be Angie Peake who is a dual registered nurse and therapist, who has the skill set to actually diagnose mental health illnesses, and then as she also happens to be a nurse prescriber is also able to liaise with the GPs etc as to what the best course of treatment is, and finally is able to discuss a relapse prevention plan with the student.

So the conference was called being very clear that we were going to be discussing our unique model..however as we acknowledged in the conference we could only do this because at any time the maximum students we could have would be 44.  Even that was pushing our resources sometimes, but we could do it!

Since I've started shouting about Mental Health I've successfully managed to polarise friends in the industry. There are some that have found me to be the annoying fly that won't go away, but the one who can't be ignored, however the majority of the industry just agrees with me that there is 'an' issue.

I advertised the conference for 4 months on FB and twitter.  I also put out a request for people to tell me their experiences of Mental Health awareness at college. Though not inundated with stories, I didn't hear one good thing (with the exception of The MTA lot that wrote in, who mostly acknowledged an illness, said that they had been helped through it by Angie, and informed me that they were now having a lovely time carrying on with the rest of their lives).  The stories that I was told were shocking and dangerous. Staff saying completely inappropriate things to people, which they've continued to carry with them to this day.  In a few cases inappropriate 'treatment' at colleges had resulted in people not going on to have the career that they would have liked.  Now even reading the emails with a realisation that I was hearing a 'one sided' argument, and that the person could have been misinterpreting what a teacher was saying to was still bloody shocking.   People bravely wrote of their experiences purely in the hope that by writing the email, they might make a difference.  Their voice (though anonymous) would be finally heard.

A few weeks before the conference The Stage had done a 'Green Room' feature (which is set out like an informal Green Room discussion between actors all talking under a pseudonym), on Mental Health in the Arts. The feature was shocking - the ignorance displayed by the actors was terrifying BUT if that was the perception of 'well' people in the industry, then at the very least we had an industry that needed educating.

In the build up I'd had several conversations with people about the conference, and indeed reassurances that 'so and so' would be there representing 'such and such' institution. Interestingly a few people that I'd contacted about the conference who had been extremely public about their own mental health struggles had failed to connect at all.  Still I increased the tweets and FB posts right up until the day. A big shout out here actually to @WestEndProducer who was a big twitter supporter, never failing to RT when asked (unlike lots of other tweeters with large followings)

Then came the day of the conference and I was literally inundated with messages from people wishing me well for the conference, and suddenly revealing their own mental health pasts, and again stating that something had to be done about it. I felt like the Mother Abbess in the Sound Of Music hearing all these 'confessions'.  Yet why were they all so hidden? Is the stigma around Mental Health even worse than I realised?  I should add that I had been thinking that way for quite some time, as since I've been blogging and shouting about it, The MTA's phone had started to ring, not with the usual student enquiries, but this time from people saying that they didn't know where to go, but they were in trouble, they were ill - please could we help them? They'd read some of my blogs or had seen that I was 'going on ' about mental illness so maybe I could point them in the right direction.  Hell at one point even a major production company contacted us in order to have some assistance on a Mental Health issue.  To be fair the only direction I can ever point anybody in on this topic is Angie, who, as far as I'm aware always helped them out.

The conference was set up to be time limited, to ensure that we could remain focussed and on topic, as it's so easy to drift. Although we set a rule up about protecting anonymity all the 'delegates' have indeed tweeted to say that they were with us, so I'm not breaking any confidences when I say that we had someone from a FE college (their identity remains protected I believe), Susan Elkin from The Stage, Pat O'Toole from Rose Bruford, Laura and James the co-founders and Principals of the Dorset School of Acting and Equity, who impressively had sent a senior member from their main office plus Adam Pettigrew the Chair of Equity YMC...and ............well that was it.

I completely applaud Equity for sending 2 senior members, in an instant showing how important a subject they considered this to be. I'd go so far as to give them a standing ovation given that I had gone a few rounds with them on Twitter over this topic many a time.  Similarly great to see our industry's paper there ready to report on this important and life changing subject...but where were the other drama colleges? Drama UK who I've always maintained are a joke, didn't show, in spite of being sent a reminder email a few days before (which of course was acknowledged by an automated response. No doubt they were over in China or somewhere building up their brand awareness). However where were the course leaders that on twitter always publicly comment on my thoughts about Mental Health, and always ask to arrange a coffee to discuss the topic...and who have never, ever followed through?  Where was the Pastoral team member from another major college who had had an extensive email exchange with me over the conference, agreeing that something needed to be done, and stating that they had already popped the date in their diary? Where were the actors, who had been very vocal with me about their own struggles during college, and telling me in no uncertain terms that they would be at this conference as something had to be done?

10 of us in total were in that room, and do you know what the saddest thing of all was...that had exceeded my expectations.  I knew that all those people wouldn't turn up.  Everybody today is a social network warrior. They'll shout about stuff on FB, they'll press 'attend' to all the political events and rallies. They'll write posts and share posts about how we should be implementing social change. They'll moan and rant about simply anything...but when it comes to leaving their homes or offices to actually implement that change....nothing.  Of course there will always be the anti establishment extremists who turn up at any event ready to fight whoever over whatever, but they're not the people that we're trying to engage here. I'm talking about the everyday actor who knows that this industry is struggling (and I know this because as well as seeing it myself, they've told me).  Talk to me about your time at college when you witnessed people going through so much pain, with so little help. Oh that's right, you will  talk or write to me about that 'poor' person, but you won't go and sit in a room one afternoon in a bid to help the next poor sod going through the system?

As it turns out the conference was extremely useful.  We all sat around and nodded as we shared experiences of mental traumas in college.  Even in that room the 1 in 3 was sounding like an optimistic figure.

Equity were very much on the front foot, and had some plans underway which might help the issue somewhat.

However there IS still an issue here, and if anything Drama UK being useless has made it even harder. All of the colleges, big and small, should have a mental health policy..but you know a policy means nothing.  It means that someone sat down, like I'm sat writing this blog, filling up a word document, with all the right 'things' that we'd want them to say, no doubt hitting on the buzz words of the moment.  Here's the rub don't mean a thing, if in practice your staff and your students don't understand Mental Health.  A person in crises won't just suddenly knock on a stranger's door to tell them their issues, more than that, if they're in crises, they might not even know that they're in crises. Good mental health policy (as witnessed at the conference actually) showed that these things had to be 'picked up' not just ignored by staff and students, or put down as 'being a bit off', or 'having the bad day'.

Who does now regulate drama schools? Or indeed does it matter? Should good Mental Health policies (and by that I mean the ones that actually deliver....not like one that I heard about that got 'put on the table every time that there was an inspection') almost get a Kitemark, to show that they operate within an agreed set of guidelines (or at the very least are attempting to)? If so, who's to hand out the elusive 'marks' and then who's going to go around every year and check that they're being upheld?  It almost needs a 'secret shopper' approach to ensure that standards are upheld.

So lots of questions still to be answered, but at least we started.

Ironically it's not my students that I'm worried about, I know that we're implementing an active Mental Health policy.  I'm actually fighting for seemingly the majority of the rest of them. The stunning teachers, like the other ones in the conference, are fighting for their students that they can't get hold of because they're swamped and over subscribed.

How to convince a 'business' to invest in the invisible that won't pay back a dividend for years? Invest in your students today and don't see any reward for years? As that's what we're asking.  The payback for good Mental Health would be experienced throughout the entire industry (hell CSM's wouldn't know what had hit them). First to get everybody to leave their homes and offices to have the discussion?