Back in March I blogged about a Mental Health conference, that we, at The MTA had instigated: http://althomasmd.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/mental-health-in-drama-schools-conference-time4change.html This had been borne out of 7 years of quiet, and then not so quiet campaigning to encourage drama colleges to think differently about their 'Mental Health Policies'. Back in Christmas 2014 I wrote this: http://www.thereviewshub.com/blog-annemarie-lewis-thomas-support-each-other-in-2015/ It was meant to be an impassioned plea to get colleges to look at this ongoing issue anew, but instead I discovered that it did nothing more than raise certain hackles, It felt like however I approached the subject it was wrong.
Since actively campaigning I have been told (and I confess that I'm paraphrasing here), that I should stop 'going on' about Mental Health, as I'd run the risk of becoming digital wall paper (I should quickly add that this was from someone most definitely supporting the campaign); My stance came across as too aggressive, turning people off from the content (said by the person that practically gave me a geographical reference point when I asked the question where young performers could go when in crises, missing the fact entirely that I was speaking much more metaphorically, and having missed the critical sentence that I'd written, about the fact that when in a mental health crises, some people couldn't get out of bed, let alone go to their GP's for help). I've written letters to various organisations which have been met with a resounding 'we do all of this...haven't you read our policy?' failing to stay curious for just one moment that whilst their intentions couldn't be faulted, maybe their services were failing to follow through somehow? I've been patronised, placated and down right insulted by the best of the best. Whilst screaming from the rafters that we, as an industry need to keep doing more, I've felt my head patted several times, like some naughty but playful dog that just won't 'stop playing'.
Then there are the amazing people that I've met along the way, some long standing associates, some very new, who have reinvigorated the campaign at times when they probably didn't even know that I was just about to throw in the towel (again). How did they do it? Well they just listened and then reiterated that we really MUST do something.
For the conference, I attempted to collate some informal empirical evidence about the silent epidemic that was hitting our industry. The emails that I received have literally kept me fighting these past 3 months. Story after story of people that had been let down by these so called 'policies', people who had left our industry prematurely due to Mental Illness. Colleges (or more specifically, unskilled staff at respected colleges) offering up helpful advice like 'the industry is tough get used to it'..right through to the classic 'if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen'. Brilliant advice for young performers struggling with their own sense of self, and in some instances, even their grasp on reality?
Whilst discussing the campaign with industry friends and colleagues every single person, without exception, has acknowledged that we have an issue in our industry. People that are struggling, entering our industry (or indeed have been in it for years)...clearly needing help and guidance. The MTA graduates are constantly returning to college with various anecdotes about how much mental illness they are seeing out there, and how that, even more scary, when they broach the subject with their new found friends, they are being answered with the same scared voices that have engulfed our industry for too long. Mental illness is not a thing to be talked about . . . it is our industry's taboo.
When famous performers become infamous overnight by breakdowns and illnesses that we can't even name, then we are doing something wrong aren't we? Stephen Fry walked off a set in 1995 due to illness, and the press nailed him to the nearest cross. The language that they used just last year to explain the 'walk out' included that classic 'admitted' word. He 'admitted' to being Bipolar. I'm asthmatic - I've never had to 'admit' to that fact...I've sometimes told people about this physical impairment, but it's never involved a full confession. I was extremely short sighted for years...I never 'admitted' that I wore contact lenses, I told people so that they could share in the same relief that I had when I put my lenses in.
The goldfish bowl of social media has magnified the issue to a crazy degree (pun intended). We no longer wait for a newspaper to publish the 'facts', the audience of that night will tell you within minutes what's gone down at a theatre. We have twitter accounts helpfully telling us the news 'as and when it happens'. We have speculation and rumours flying around before the curtain has come down on Act One. At least pop stars get a warning from 'an insider' that someone is going to grass on them, so that their management have time to put together a damage limitation plan (usually dressed up as a scoop for one of the tabloids). Theatre folk don't have that luxury. Live theatre nowadays equals live, real time, gossip. It doesn't matter what you write, as we have forgotten that we're actually writing about humans...and probably humans in so much pain at that time. Those same humans go home and read the crap that's been written about them, if they're foolish they'll try to answer their critics. . . but it's lost. At that moment the 'battle is lost'. The next thing you know what should have been a discrete issue between you and a maximum of 2000 people (usually much less), has become a headline. . . a news story.
Let's go back to my critics though . . . as we don't have a problem in our industry. . . do we? Sarcastic? Moi?
In other words Mental Health and the stigma around it, is still prevalent in our industry. This amazing industry that accepts everyone for who and what they are, just as long as they have talent. We not only accept, but we embrace flaws. . . maybe to the point that it quashes our desire to fix this problem?
So for all the people out there struggling today, for all the people out there that feel just a bit out of kilter with the rest of the world, but you can't just put your finger on the issue, we've come up with an industry wide Mental Health Charter. We are looking for colleges, production companies, theatres and agents to sign up to the Charter. It costs you nothing. . . it contains simple guidelines for each of those areas. It contains a Fact Sheet that we want to get out there to as many industry folk as possible. It's your 'break glass in an emergency' piece of virtual paper. A simple PDF that we ask you to download onto your desktop, or add to a well used folder, so that IF you find yourself with an issue that you're going to need to 'admit to'....you now have an instant reference point to attempt to try and find out exactly what you're 'admitting to'. A reference point that isn't a generic Google search (which is in itself enough to make anyone ill), but a list of criteria drawn up by Angie Peake our Health and Welfare Consultant (who I should add, volunteered her services to do this work), but designed to 'keep it real'.
The #time4change initiative is not the answer to the difficulties that we all face in this industry - but if it helps one person then it's been worth all of the above, and then some.
We should celebrate ill performers fighting their inner demons, be they dressed up in comedy, addiction, or even meltdowns, in order to go back into work. To return to a job, which let's not forget, holds each and every one of us, up to public scrutiny night after night. Or if currently looking for work, an occupation that puts you up for scrutiny and rejection every day. . .without ever telling you why. A career, which for most people, means only being able to engage in it a few times a year, and even then probably won't be paying you a decent wage.
All of this and yet STILL we brush mental health under the carpet, because I guess it's the ultimate monster. If it got a hold of so and so. . . are you next? PR machines go into overtime to deny that their clients are 'ill'. Agents feel the need to cover up a truth, and discretely try to let their client know that there might be something wrong.
It's time for all of us within the industry to at least have an open dialogue about Mental Health. To be able to say, without recrimination that we have depression or anxiety or bipolar or. . . whatever. For our industry to understand those words without fleeing in a stricken panic. I am asthmatic, I have a pump, I am OK. People will know where to find the little blue plastic thing that I occasionally need to breath. I am short sighted. In my pre-laser days, people knew where my lenses were for those 'special mornings' when I maybe, just maybe, I'd lost the ability to be thoughtful the night before in disposing of them. If people suffer from a mental illness they should have the freedom to name it, and we should have the knowledge to understand what that means, and what support, if any that person needs.
If you'd like a copy of the Charter, and think that it could help inform you, your clients, your production company - just drop me a line at Annemarie@theMTA.co.uk naming the subject as #time4change. It won't cost you anything, but it might make a huge difference to somebody's life. . . if not your own