‘We’re not talking about this’: actors spotlight industry’s mental health stigma

It is practically a professional requirement that actors be emotional and vulnerable, but only recently has protecting their mental wellbeing become a priority.

‘There’s nothing glamorous about depression’. Milly Thomas in Dust, a one-woman play about suicide, at the Edinburgh festival in 2017.

Actor and playwright Milly Thomas is sick of the image of the tortured artist. “There’s nothing romantic or glamorous about depression,” she says. But Thomas believes that the idea persists, particularly for performers. Actors are expected to expose themselves emotionally, often with little regard for how it affects their states of mind. At the same time, they work in a profession characterised by instability, in which self-worth often rests on their ability to get the next role.

Until recently, however, little attention had been paid to the relationship between acting and mental health. One of the reasons Thomas wrote her solo play Dust, an unflinching look at one young woman’s suicide, was because she was frustrated with reductive understandings of mental health. She recalls her own experience of depression: “I was very, very ill, but also completely able to get out of bed every day and go to work and do my job, and I think that’s a blessing and a curse. I just thought, ‘We’re not talking about this.’”

Thomas is not alone in feeling this way. In 2015, a survey by the Stage, Equity and Spotlight found that one in five people working in entertainment have actively sought help for their mental health – but this figure may well underestimate the true extent of the problems in the sector. Respondents to the survey, the majority of whom worked in theatre, identified issues such as performance anxiety, mood swings and depression. When asked about the state of their mental health, 46% described it as either poor or average.

One of the outcomes of this research was Arts Minds, an information hub for people working in the creative industries. It’s part of a recent surge of interest in mental health and wellbeing in the arts. In September, London’s Park theatre announced a partnership with the mental health charity Mind to help its performers. A number of companies, theatres, drama schools and agents have signed up to the mental health charter for the performing arts.

Not going through it alone… Christian Edwards in Northern Broadsides’ Cyrano de Bergerac. Photograph: Nobby Clark

TALK is a network set up by actors Christian Edwards and Harry Long and based at the Actors Centre. The premise is simple: actors and other theatre professionals meet up regularly to share experiences and support one another. It came out of Edwards’s own mental health struggles. “I think the first way to move on and start feeling better about things is just by talking, meeting others, and not going through it alone,” he says. “We wanted people to be able to compare notes with other actors in a frank way,” adds Long.

Research into the connection between acting and mental health is scant – a gap that actor Alice Brockway’s PhD on the subject is set out to address. The goal is to come up with a set of best practice recommendations for working with actors with mental illnesses, while Brockway’s website Playing Sane is a space to talk frankly about these issues.

Anecdotally, at least, there seems to be a connection between the pressures of the profession and conditions such as depression and anxiety. “I think part of the thing about being in contact with your emotions as an actor is that we’re more susceptible to them taking over,” suggests Edwards. Thomas observes something similar, noting how common acting techniques can encourage harmful thought processes. “Anyone can think about something sad that happened when they were younger and have a good cry, but can you switch it off? Can you go into the next scene and be completely OK?” She thinks drama schools should teach actors how to step away from extreme emotional states, as well as how to access those emotions in the first place.

“Also, the profession in and of itself is very brutal,” points out Thomas. Unstable, insecure employment, long hours, unforgiving audition processes and the constant pressure to be at your best can all take their toll. “People spend a lot of time projecting their best selves because that’s what the industry demands,” says Long. While emotions are important on stage, behind the scenes there’s a need to appear confident and capable. “Our job is to be vulnerable in front of an audience, but you’re not supposed to be vulnerable in any other way,” says Brockway. Part of the problem, she suggests, is that in a saturated profession, actors can be seen as somewhat disposable: “Why deal with it if there’s just another actor in the background anyway?” Edwards agrees: “We don’t want to appear like we have a vulnerability that will mean that we’re not as reliable as somebody else, because there are just so many of us.”

‘We wanted people to be able to compare notes with other actors in a frank way’. Harry Long, right, with Rosie Armstrong in Pentabus Theatre Company’s This Land in 2016. Photograph: Richard Stanton.

Brockway points the finger at established yet emotionally damaging rehearsal practices. “Many of these methods, they’re donkey’s years old, they haven’t been updated in any way in line with what we now know about psychology and about how the brain works,” she says. There is also that enduring idea that great actors are supposed to struggle. “I get very upset with this notion of having to suffer for your art,” says Thomas. “They’re called plays; I don’t know why we don’t play.”

While the industry now feels more open to dialogue around mental health, there’s a danger that it’s all talk and no action. Employers, ultimately, are the ones who need to commit to change. “It’s very important that producers and theatre companies and other people working in the business are now being more open and saying we support people with mental health problems,” says Edwards. Thomas proposes that all theatres should have in-house therapy available for actors, following a model that the National Theatre is beginning to pioneer. “I think also maybe there need to be guidelines around what we should and shouldn’t ask or say,” adds Thomas.

Everyone I speak to agrees that there’s still a long way to go. “The shifts are so, so minuscule, but there are shifts there,” says Thomas. “We eventually have to get to that place where we can say ‘How are you today?’ and not feel squeamish about the answer, or not feel frightened about having to answer.”