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Susan Elkin: We must do more to promote mental health awareness

Photo: Guryanov Andrey/Shutterstock
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It could be that our industry attracts more than its fair share of people with mental health issues. Or maybe working in this pressurised, uncertain industry causes them. Either way, dual-registered nurse practitioner and therapist Angie Peake, who specialises in metal health in performing arts, sees many problems.

Research – and there have been several international studies – indicates that around a third of all performers have, or are likely to have, mental illness at some stage in their careers. To compare this with the population at large, it’s about one in four.

So what are drama schools doing to identify these people and provide them with the sort of proper, robust support they need to deal with or manage the problems? A group of us met last week to discuss this difficult topic at a conference, Time4Change, at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Tottenham.

The size of the group is a clear indicator of the crux of the problem. There were just 10 people present out of the 60 who had expressed interest and the 30 who had signed up to come. Present were the organiser, two people each from two small independent drama schools, two from an actors’ organisation, one from a college of further education, one from an accredited drama school and me. The absence of the other 12 accredited schools, the eight top schools that have chosen to no longer be accredited and the drama training umbrella organisations suggest that most people think either that there is no problem or that they’re dealing with it perfectly well, thank you.

But they’re not. We heard from everyone present at Time4Change that students routinely fail to declare pre-existing problems, which are sometimes also related to physical health, on their application and registration forms for fear of jeopardising their chances of a place.

Early in the training – usually within the first week was the rueful consensus – the mental health cracks begin to show. These can include moderate to severe depression, self-harm, sex and eating disorders, learning difficulties, bipolar disorder, behavioural problems and more. Then there are problems triggered by external factors such as substance abuse and bereavement. Bear in mind, too, that many of these young people are far from home and the familiar support mechanisms for the first time.

Every drama school I’ve ever asked tells me that there are policies in place to support the students. And if you ask the students, they say vaguely but positively: “Oh yes, there’s someone we can see if we need to.” Typically, they don’t personally know the person they can see, of course. It’s all down to numbers and money. In the school where Peake works, she has a total of 40 students. She leads workshops and it’s all proactive. Every student knows her personally and is comfortable about consulting her. There is no stigma, shame or embarrassment.

Most drama schools are much larger. If you have 1,000 students on roll, to do the job properly and to provide every student with effective personal pastoral care, you would need a team of at least 20 skilled professionals. The usual arrangement is one or two, perhaps with some additional part-timers or volunteers for the whole organisation. That would cost far more than most schools are able or willing to invest.

The current situation means many students slip through the net, and those who ask for help have to wait many months for an appointment. That could be the difference between life and death for a suicidal student whose condition carries “imminent risk to life”. It also means that mental health awareness is not central to the culture, and students and staff assume that mental illness is peripheral.

Inspecting organisations such as Ofsted and Drama UK require written policies about every aspect of the institution’s life and work – including mental health. Well, it’s very easy (if time-consuming) to have the right paperwork in place. A proper, worthwhile policy is what you do on a day-to-day basis, not what’s written on a box-ticking file tucked away in a computer or actual file. Teaching staff often run themselves ragged in some of these schools, trying to provide pastoral care and counselling usually in hours for which they’re not paid. It takes specialist expertise, however, to assess urgency, spot danger signals and to know what to refer on to whom. Few teachers have these skills.

It really is time everyone involved in training performing arts professionals started talking openly and constructively about this so that we can find cost-effective ways of setting up real care, rather than just paying lip service to it. A group of 10 – you can make contact using #time4change – is a start, but it’s a very small one and this thing needs to snowball. Every time a drama student or actor is overcome by some crippling, escalating mental illness, or, worse, commits suicide, he or she has been failed by the system.

Read more from Susan Elkin

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