Thursday, 16 May 2019

MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK: Reflections on a Changing Industry

Mental Heath Awareness week was started by the Mental Heath Foundation, who are in their 70th year, in 2001. Combating issues such as stress, relationships, loneliness, altruism, sleep, alcohol and friendship with this years theme being body image. 

Here at Pocket we put some feelers out to some of our friends who responded with such bravery and pride. Working in this industry we call 'show business' is tough at the best of times, Mental Health Awareness week is our chance to educate people and help us understand one another. 

Our mission as people who are in and adore this industry is to support and help everyone in it. To promote Mental Health Awareness week we have been joined by a few of our friends who have written some wonderful guest posts for us. The more we speak about this, the better. 

Click here to view them all. 

Paula Brett is an actor, musical theatre performer, puppeteer and mental health activist. As a working actor, she shares her experience in a guest post for Mental Health Awareness. 


Mental health awareness week is rolling around again. For me, as a creative who has lived with chronic depression and anxiety for most of my life, it brings mixed feelings.

I don’t remember a lot of my teenage years. From the ages of 14-22 I lived through severe depression, which contrary to popular belief doesn’t feel much like run-of-the-mill sadness – rather like you’re going numb from the inside, and all the grief that comes with that. I was having panic attacks daily, crying my way to and from school and college, yet determined to convey this image of someone very on-the-ball and well put together. I developed an eating disorder, became suicidal and was disgusted with everything about myself. On the rare occasions I tried to open up and talk about it, I was disbelieved, dismissed and ignored. The message was clear – depressed people are weak and ungrateful. There is one way to exist in this industry, and you are not it. If you’re not perfect, you’re not working hard enough. 

Honestly, I exhausted every last avenue of support. I’m a trier, I do not go down without a fight. Teachers, friends. No one believed me, everyone said I was just being ungrateful. I took myself to therapy, I googled what depression was, I picked up medicine on my own. The shame of it – it’s like the moment before you throw up, but constant, and you feel it all over your body. 

Yes – things are different now. In part. There is a lot that I have to swallow and let go of in order to move in the world. I now go to doctors appointments to support those who told me the antidepressants that saved my life were nonsense. I now check in post-therapy with people who assured me that all my problems would go away if only I’d choose to be happy. I’m now praised for my openness and honesty by the people who didn’t want to know, didn’t want to hear. 

Here is the reality of it – I had to wait for the world to catch up. I had to wait, for the most part, until we collectively decided it was now fashionable to talk about mental health. Many of the front runners in the change that we’re now seeing had to wait for that trend to take off before their work was taken seriously. We are not actually as far ahead in this process as we think, and I speak not as someone “glass half empty”, but as someone whose mental health issues don’t fit the very rigid boxes we lay out to understand experiences outside our own.

Here’s a puzzle – I am an actor who is at peace with rejection, loves auditions, and has multiple strategies in place to cope with uncertainty, lack of routine in my work schedule etc. etc. I practice mental health management every day, and have thorough and complex strategies in place to make sure my rogue brain doesn’t interfere with my work.

Is there a place for me, at a mental health meet up for actors, as someone who has depressive episodes that come from nowhere and stay for weeks? Anxiety flare ups? Trauma responses from years of emotional abuse at the hands of a bitter and petty teacher? 

From what I have found, no. Not because anyone is unfriendly – quite the opposite - It’s because everyone is utterly desperate to fix me. There are assumptions made. They must not be trying hard enough.

I have to tell you – my quality of life improved hugely when I stopped hating and punishing myself for my mental illnesses and started accepting and working with them. But in terms of peer support, where can I go to just be? Where can I talk honestly about, for example, the fine line between pushing myself in exercise class and triggering my eating disorder? Let me tell you – When you take the conversation out of audition nerves and fear of failure and into the realm of chronic mental illness, the temperature in the room drops. People hold themselves a little stiffer. You remember – the people around you are scared of the thing in your brain. They were taught they should be afraid of it and, by proxy, you. That’s stigma. This goes deeper than the confines of our industry. 

I am going to let myself slip into my ideal world, here. This is what I’d love to see next.

Do away with positive and negative. Try Helpful and unhelpful – because fear and anger and frustration is all there to tell us something. Encourage each other to be practical, instead of blindly positive. (Fun fact: when I’m in a depressive episode, I lose my ability to become angry. It’s awful. Anger is your fighting spirit.)

We all need to rant, sometimes. Best to do it in a way that will allow us to express ourselves without hurting other people and making sweeping statements. Can we do that in a place that isn’t social media? What does that place look like? I don’t know. But listen – we need each other. Let’s all get on the same team, actors, casting directors, FOH staff, all.

Educate. Seeking help involves excruciating waiting times, soulless questionnaires, and baring your most vulnerable fears to total strangers. I’m currently on a waiting list so long they can’t even give me a projected time. The more you understand what you’re asking when you ask a loved one to seek help for mental health problems, the better you will be able to support them.

Listen to marginalised communities, especially if they are critiquing your work. Understand that when those concerns aren’t heard, it plays into a vicious cycle of story-silencing that ultimately leads to lives lost.

Practice talking, and practice hearing. The day I can enter a dance class and say “Hey, there are some things about this environment that might trigger my eating disorder, I’ll drop out and take five if I need to.” Will be a glorious day. Remember – we’ve been taught to fear this language. We need to address those fears.

Mental Health panels and talks are great things. With all due respect, I’d rather see a creative with depression on said panel than a “Success Coach”.

Let’s improve in every corner we can. I want to hear about Mental Health resources for backstage crew, TIE actors, front of house staff, wardrobe, technicians. 

Most of all – let’s do this together. The responsibility of change cannot rest solely on the shoulders of those who need it most.

For everyone with a mental illness who is starting out and wondering “is there really a place for me here?” to know that yes, you are valued. Yes, you have work to do here. Yes, yes, yes, come with your medication and your coping strategies and the stuff that will never go away.

Because above all we are storytellers, and I’ll bet you have some stories to tell.

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