This guest blog is written by PhD candidate, lecturer and trained actor Julia Grieshofer. Her research at University College London focuses on actors’ mental health and their resilience. Julia, after completing a BA in Performing Arts and Digital Communication in Rome and working in the industry for a while, came to London in 2017 to do an MSc in Theoretical Psychoanalytic Studies at University College London to broaden her knowledge of Psychology. This was followed by a PhD in Psychoanalytic Studies. Nowadays, she attends also modules on the MSc in Performing Arts Medicine and specialises in Wellbeing for Performers. She shares her experiences, mental health advice and discoveries via her Instagram.
I always wondered why there is such a stigma around mental health within the arts, especially among actors. I mean, we enjoy talking about acting and we talk about our work and the experiences of our characters quite freely. Isn’t it our psychological capacity to empathise and identify with a character and share their story, their difficulties, their truth with the public that draws us to this work in the first place? Why then do we hesitate and neglect to talk about ourselves, or discuss our own mental health? Potentially, it simply is true that talking about one’s own struggles is more difficult. Maybe it is too overwhelming, and we do not know how to share and neither how to react. And the result of this is awkward silence in the face of struggles and unexpected disclosures.
I am exploring mental health and resilience in actors specifically because when studying and practising as an actor myself, I drowned in the disheartening reality that actors’ own mental health difficulties are rarely discussed. After finishing my BA in Performing Arts in Rome and having worked with a theatre company there for some years, I came to London to learn more about mental health by doing a MSc in Psychoanalysis. I was partly driven to do that because my own mental health had taken quite a knock whilst working as an actor. Unfortunately, I discovered that even within the academic literature research on actor’s wellbeing is spare. Thus, I am currently trying to explore this area as a PhD researcher at the University College London (UCL).
I’d like to talk briefly about a couple of reasons why, in my opinion, actors are reluctant to discuss their own mental health, and I would be most interested to hear your thoughts on this issue. It seems to me that very often, actors, myself included, hesitate to share their own vulnerabilities out of a fear of shame and judgement. Within the industry there still exists quite a stigma about suffering. The prevailing attitude still seems to be that one ought to be able to cope alone with the demands of life and the work, including that which this demanding work may itself stir up. While peer support is not lacking, it does seem to be expected that once you enter the rehearsal and workspace you leave your problems at the door. Not to do so would interfere with the work, seems to be the idea (Robb, Due, & Venning, 2017).
Such a perception reflects the concept of professionalism, so highly valued in the field. We shouldn’t take our problems to work, or burden our colleagues with them; it hinders the work. While I do agree that the rehearsal space is a professional work space, and that rehearsals should not be treated as a form of drama therapy, I think that working with our own emotions as they arise during the work is essential if we are to keep functioning well as actors. The work actors do on a daily basis explicitly mobilises complex feeling at a personal level and this fact should be taken very seriously.
For example, an actor may have to re-experience past feelings of grief when playing a scene where a partner dies. Why shouldn’t that actor have space to process the experience of getting back in touch with his own pain in the service of portraying a character? What I find disheartening and unrealistic is the idea that having undergone a sophisticated professional training we should no longer need to process in that way. After all, it’s not as if during training we are once and for all armed with the skills and knowledge to manage such experiences, such that we shouldn’t need to continue working on ourselves, or having support to manage (Robb, Due, & Venning, 2017). Certainly, it is difficult to create the space for this while working within time constraints; It’s hard enough to bring together a performance without figuring in time for actors to process the experience of getting into character. But, I argue, it’s necessary. Might it be an option to offer debriefings after the work that gives space for this, (before everyone decamps to the pub and alcohol is involved!). Even just a couple of minutes is better than nothing. We must stop denying the need to make space for post-rehearsal and performance reflection. Denying this need, we neglect our own wellbeing and that of our professional colleagues.
I do think the acting industry is still dominated by many power imbalances that impact the working and personal lives of actors. The industry continues to be dominated by a powerful few who at times have absurdly high expectations of actors because competition is high. Sometimes demands are downright cruel and debasing. It is however difficult, to say the very least, to put one’s own employment status at risk by objecting to particular requests, or even starting a discussion about these. It is risky to do so. Anything that may lead one to be identified as a ‘difficult actor’ is avoided, and risking that certain directors or producers would not want to work with you again in the future is rarely an option (Robb, Due, & Venning, 2017).
Further, job opportunities are and have always been rare within the industry. It is hard to find work, especially paid work. Unemployment rates hover at around 90%, with only about 2% of actors able to make a living from their career (Williams, Lacasa, & Latora, 2019). Casting Call Pro in their 2014 survey revealed the very bleak reality that only one actor in 50 earns more than £20,000 a year (Clark, 2014). Such financial instability means actors often fail to reach ordinary social milestones such as achieving stable living circumstances or starting a family. It’s demoralising.
Without a doubt, when many individuals choose a career in acting, it isn’t driven by vain hopes for fame or monetary gain. Indeed, given that only 2% of actors do manage to make a living from acting, it appears rather clear that the motivations to do this work are of a much more idealistic nature. It is true that acting can provide a deep sense of meaning and purpose to life (Robb, Due, & Venning, 2017). One gets to communicate the essence of what it means to be human and share emotional truths with the world for social and individual benefit. But a common sense that actors are privileged to be able to pursue their dream career may hold them back from seeking help when they really need it. Ideas like ‘I chose this work, I can’t then complain about it’, are common.
Through my research, I am trying to identify common problems which actors face within the industry that negatively influence their wellbeing. I am also interested in the resilience of actors, and the factors which seem to promote the resilience so needed to help actors cope with being part of the profession itself. Ultimately, I hope to discover how resilience can be strengthened, and want to think about how this could become a part of all acting trainings.
I am writing these words today, in the hope that one day we will be much more aware of the issues actors struggle with on a daily basis, both that are brought on by their work and which the work exacerbates. I am passionate about encouraging open and informed discussions about mental wellbeing within the arts, and if you’d like to share your own experiences you can find out more and take part in my research anonymously through the UCL website. It will take you only about 20 minutes as I already have enough interview participants and just need people to complete questionnaires.
Sources of mental health support for actors and creative practitioners:
BAPAM helpline and free clinics
Our expert clinicians understand the demands of a performing arts career and can help with all occupation-related mental (and physical) health concerns. We support you in overcoming problems quickly, with accurate diagnosis and advice, and by helping you navigate an effective care pathway. Equity support us to provide their members with up to 6 free counselling sessions.
Online BAPAM training and community drop ins
Learn new skills with guest coaches and speakers, embed health and wellbeing strategies into your creative toolkit, and join peer discussion and support.
Include advice on mental health support in a crisis, psychological self care, performance anxiety, choosing a therapist and sources of financial and practical support.
Information hub from BAPAM, Equity, The Stage and Spotlight, collating resources and links to sources of support
Spotlight mental health and wellbeing resources
Support for Spotlight members including free online events
Free, independent and confidential phone and email service that provides support to people working in the theatre industry
Free and low cost mental health support to anyone in the creative arts through therapy and seminars
Applause for Thought
Free & low-cost mental health support, talks, courses & consultancy for the arts