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Mark Shenton: Sheridan Smith’s honesty reflects how theatre is addressing mental health issues

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl in 2015. Photo: Marc Brenner
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In two recent interviews, musical theatre star Sheridan Smith has been very frank and revealing about her own mental health issues – ones that coincided with her father’s diagnosis and subsequent death from cancer, and led her to having a very public breakdown during the West End run of Funny Girl.

In the Daily Telegraph, she said: “I managed to keep it going for a long time but the wheels were coming off, and when I crashed it was a big bang… That wild girl stuff is drink-fuelled bravado and, actually, when I’m on my own, I’m like a little broken sparrow wanting to be put back together.”

She also spoke of how she ended up there: “It sounds ridiculous but the more successful I got, the more I felt like I had impostor syndrome. Like I’m not as good as they think and I’m going to get found out. Then the panic attacks kicked in and I would party more just to try to drown out the noise and self-doubt.”

Being honest and up front is a way of reclaiming the narrative, as well as the responsibility around what happened.

And, in the Guardian, Smith spoke of her approach to interviews: “Back when I started on TV, they sent me on a course, to teach me how to behave in interviews, like they do with politicians. I’m sat with this guy, I’m in my early 20s. He said, ‘No, you see, you’re answering my questions honestly.’ And I said, ‘But you asked’.”

The Guardian journalist pays her the courtesy of asking if she’s okay for everything she says to be in print and she replies: “Maybe it’s age. But you start to think, if you own something, how can that hurt? If anything, I should be more honest, because if it helps other people, hearing this, that’s a good thing.”

By the same token, I’ve just interviewed the Broadway and TV actor Patrick Page, who is currently making his London debut starring in the new musical Hadestown that is now in previews at the National Theatre ahead of opening officially on November 13. He spoke openly about his own struggles with depression.

There’s increasingly an acknowledgement of the role of mental health – particularly as it affects the workplace – in all of our lives

I, too, have a long history of suffering regular bouts of depression. My last – and longest – bout ran for some 21 months. But I’ve been proud to have shared my struggles publicly, and also my recovery. In 2013, I wrote a column for The Stage in which I publicly outed myself as a sufferer.

Since I wrote that column, I’ve discovered something else about myself and been personally and publicly honest: the way I used addictive behaviour to ease and numb the pain. And it was in tackling this with the help of a 12-step programme that I also found a way out of depression nearly four years ago.

Not everyone is an addict who can join a recovery programme to address their addiction, but there’s increasingly an acknowledgement of the role of mental health – particularly as it affects the workplace – in all of our lives.

As well as less stigma being attached to seeking out therapy and/or pharmacological solutions, there are now also much quicker private and confidential channels for people to access help, bespoke to the theatre industry. The Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre have joined forces to provide a free 24-hour helpline, while further resources are available via the ArtsMinds website, see below, of which The Stage is a partner.

But the most important thing is openness and an ability to talk about it without shame or fear. Theatre is a safe place for sharing stories in the dark – but also a place where those who feel they are literally in the dark can find our stories being told, too.

One of the most powerful musicals I’ve seen so far this century was the Broadway hit Next to Normal, which chronicles a woman’s own journey through bipolar disorder. It is long overdue a UK showing – not just as a great piece of theatre, but also for the healing it could bring.

SOLT and UK Theatre’s free 24-hour Theatre Helpline, offering offers support and advice to anyone working in theatre, whether in-house or freelance, is 0800 915 4617. The email address is advice@theatrehelpline.org

Help via ArtsMinds can be found here.

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