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The Green Room: Is there a stigma around mental health in showbusiness?

Sheridan Smith has spoken frankly in recent interviews about struggling with mental health issues during the UK tour of Funny Girl. Photo: Marc Brenner Sheridan Smith has spoken frankly in recent interviews about struggling with mental health issues during the UK tour of Funny Girl. Photo: Marc Brenner

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​​​​

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured both nationally and internationally

Gary Abblett is a 38-year-old jobbing actor with experience at the National, RSC, in the West End and on the road

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA-winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Eoghan Barry is 30. He has worked as an actor on fringe projects and work for young people and more recently has been working as a writer

John Pepper is 31 and for the past 10 years has worked as an actor in regional theatres, the National and in radio, television and film

 

John I think there is stigma around mental health in most businesses.

Eoghan Actually, I’ve found that increasingly – and especially in my current cast – people are getting better at being open about their mental health, as I try to be, too.

John I think people in our industry are better at talking, so there is possibly less stigma.

Gary I don’t think there’s a stigma, exactly. It’s one of the most talked about subjects of our time. It’s such a hard thing to talk constructively about, though.

Beryl This industry seems to be a place where people feel able to be more open, generally.

Eoghan I still believe there are aspects of the industry that are quite destructive to mental health but are dismissed by those with the ability to change it.

John I don’t know the medical facts surrounding this, but our industry can often involve far greater emotional engagement so perhaps the highs and lows are greater.

Eoghan I know that the #YesOrNo campaign still hasn’t had a big impact. There are plenty of casting directors who still say: “Oh, we just don’t have the time to let everyone know.”

John There seemed to be a great push for a helpline that industry folk could phone if they needed to talk, but I couldn’t help thinking some other things need to be tackled first.

Eoghan The ‘show must go on’ idea is pushed on us all the time. I’ve seen people abusing, for example, Carrie Hope Fletcher recently for taking time off in her current show. That’s for flu. How are we meant to feel okay with saying: “Actually, I can’t do tonight’s show because I’m utterly depressed and need time off”?

JonThe Park Theatre has partnered with the Mind charity to help its performers, and the Time4change mental health charter has been in the news too.

Albert It’s great that there are new initiatives happening. But perhaps it needs to start before people enter the world of work. Resilience training at drama school might be more useful than another afternoon of mime.

JonResilience training is a brilliant idea. Just standing in a room with a load of casting shouting “We don’t want you but we’re not going to tell you yet” for an hour.

John That sounds like my kind of gig. But casting directors suffer just as much from rejection, or projects falling through.

Gary Obviously, resilience is largely an individual’s personal responsibility too.

Lyn Gardner: Must the show really always go on?

Albert It’s about managing expectations and giving graduates a process to help them deal with things themselves. They need to have places to go and people who can listen and mentor them.

John Mentoring is really important. I spoke to the partner of an actor the other day who felt that there was no one in the industry to help.

Beryl Would it be more useful to have something in place for periods of unemployment, regarding mental healthcare?

Eoghan We go through hundreds of ‘job interviews’ in our lives whereas the average person may do fewer than 20. That’s a lot of rejection to get used to.

JonI think that’s a crucial point. Between jobs is probably the time when people struggle the most. But of course mental health issues aren’t always contextual. Perhaps we need to be better at understanding that someone with a great job or career can still be hit by problems.

Albert In the 1980s, I was rehearsing a Christmas show, when a young actor attempted to kill himself. Mercifully, he survived, but the cast struggled with the feeling that we had all been rehearsing with him for two weeks and he hadn’t been able to tell anyone what was wrong. And we are supposed to all have good listening skills.

Beryl Maybe situations like this would be less likely to happen if the right strategies were in place, such as mentors and counsellors.

Eoghan Of course, it’s a wider societal issue that isn’t being addressed in any efficient way at government level.

John Imagine if we had a sponsor – someone to talk to when we were feeling down or struggling? We should set that up.

JonYes. I think agents bear the brunt of that now, which isn’t really their job…

Eoghan John, I love that. Equity could very easily pair a new actor up with an existing actor. A big brother/sister when you leave drama school or join the union.

Beryl RADA does it, doesn’t it?

Albert I’ve mentored seven young actors over the past 10 years and it’s been a joy. They are all friends now and I’d like to think that there are things that have happened that wouldn’t if we hadn’t been working together. I’m also very proud of how they are all getting along, though it’s been no bed of roses for any of them.

JonYes, it’s good to be reminded that relationships like that can be mutually beneficial. It’s not just a one-way thing.

John I had a mentor at drama school. We’re now very good friends but the bugger keeps getting my jobs. I saw him in an ad I went up for on telly last night.

Advice and support

SOLT and UK Theatre’s free 24-hour Theatre Helpline: 0800 915 4617; email: advice@theatrehelpline.org

ArtsMinds website: artsminds.co.uk

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