According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health), one in five adults will experience or have experienced a mental health struggle. In 2019, this individual represented 19.1% of U.S. adults – that is to say about 47.6 million living with a mental illness. Now, triple that number. Individuals working in the entertainment industry — actors, musicians, stage production, roadies — those in front of and behind the set/stage — are approximately three times more likely to struggle with mental health challenges. Moreover, there is a disproportionate struggle with substance misuse in this population. While Arts and Entertainment can transcend emotions and benefit our well-being, it’s somewhat ironic that production and tech workers — the ones we don’t see — are, in fact, suffering.
Jennifer Leff, LCSW in New York, NY, pointed out that, no doubt, the pandemic has impacted most industries. However, the entertainment industry was the first to shut down and will be the last to fully re-open. Entertainment industry workers, specifically those behind the scenes, have long experienced mental health challenges and stereotypically, haven’t easily accessed services. The pandemic has only further shed a light on individuals in the entertainment industry, and with this, a strong call for mental health professionals who are equipped to provide support and tailor their clinical practices for those working behind the scenes.
Mental health issues in the entertainment industry are severe
Julie Crosby at Showbizing acknowledged that mental health issues in the entertainment industry are widespread and severe. Studies in the United Kingdom, North America, and Australia show that rates of suicide and suicidal thinking, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse are significantly higher among entertainment industry professionals than the general population. Those studies were conducted pre-pandemic. The dismal statistics regarding mental health in the entertainment industry shouldn’t come as a surprise to any producer. It’s a high-risk business that’s rife with uncertainty, job insecurity, and brutal hours.
Jessica Sassoon, LMFT, stated that many entertainers have taken their own lives. Some struggle with anxiety and depression. What’s more, despite the hard work of many, there is still a stigma associated with mental health. This is especially true in the entertainment industry. Actors, musicians, and other performers face unique challenges. They have chosen to use their creative talents and skills to build a career and find fulfillment, but with this path comes a certain amount of uncertainty. They face more uncertainty than individuals in most other professions. Not knowing what’s ahead can cause anyone stress and anxiety. Constant competition with others and being subjected to being judged and measured against others is also understandably stressful. Even if you are the best, for how long will it last? Entertainers never know how they will do in the next audition. If rejected, many experience self-doubt, a low sense of self-esteem, and a lack of confidence. It is also common for entertainers to feel overwhelmed. When they do find work, they are required to spend long hours on set, they do not work a 9 to 5 schedule, and they miss out on spending time with family and other important relationships. Research has shown that simply venting your troubles to a friend is not helpful. Your friend most likely can offer sympathy but is not qualified or trained to help you find effective solutions to your problems. Finding a therapist who understands the unique stresses of the entertainment industry is crucial to leading a healthy life and moving forward with the best possible chance of success both on a personal and professional level.
The rigors and unique stressors of entertainment industry workers
It has a negative impact on well-being and mental health. Common industry threads include financial instability, irregular hours, transient work and its impact on relationships, and lack of permanency. Bullying, harassment, and intimidation can occur, and leaders often don’t know how to provide support. This can make people even more vulnerable. It’s also not uncommon for those working in the entertainment industry to lack insurance that covers behavioral health costs.
It is vitally important to have a cadre of therapists who are familiar with the industry, cognizant of how anxiety, depression, and PTSD are triggered in these workplaces, and willing to adjust their practices to meet the needs of this population (for example, by incorporating sliding scales).
According to the Hollywood Reporter, companies in Hollywood haven’t offered much beyond the basics — typically three free counseling sessions through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Some have upped the benefit, including Hulu (six free in-person sessions per year), Netflix (eight), NBC Universal (10), and Snap (up to 16). Viacom CBS, Sony, and Warner Media have EAP counselors available on-site at some offices, but the severity of the issues seems to be awakening Hollywood to the fact that it needs to do more in its own ranks, especially given that these are businesses where the most precious capital is brain power. “mental health issues in the entertainment industry should be a priority for all of us,” says Mandeville Films’ David Hoberman, who suffered from OCD and depression in his childhood. “We need to do anything we can in Hollywood to discuss it and create exposure. I’ve experienced mental health issues within my own family and have seen the pain and devastation it causes. Like cancer, mental illness is a serious disease that needs to be treated. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma.”
In England, executives of entertainment companies approached the U.K.’s Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund, now rebranded as the Film and TV Charity. That led to the launch of The Looking Glass, the U.K.’s first industrywide survey of the well-being of its workers in film and TV. A recent study estimated that the cost of mental health issues in the entertainment industry to the country’s entertainment sector is more than $300 million annually, through employees not turning up for work, not performing, or leaving their roles. Initial results painted a more alarming picture than had been expected, with 87 percent of respondents reporting that they had experienced mental health issues in the entertainment industry (the U.K.’s average is 65 percent). “We needed to do something to understand the underlying cause of those issues,” says Film and TV Charity CEO Alex Pumfrey, who describes the initial survey results as revealing “mental health issues in the entertainment industry crisis.” The full report alongside a plan of action was published.
In the U.S., companies are enacting diverse programs to address the issue, spurred by younger workers increasingly wanting wellness solutions in the workplace.
Two companies are leading the way by fostering inclusive employee-resource groups. At Verizon Media (which includes Yahoo and AOL), the three-year-old Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group, supports workers with ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, and other challenges. Its mission is to create a welcoming space for “minds of all kinds” in the workplace, according to the company. “I have ADHD,” says the group’s founder, Margaux Joffe, director of accessibility marketing. “I knew there had to be other people dealing with other issues — [things] that historically have not been talked about in the workplace.” The group has done in-house awareness campaigns, has dedicated Slack channels, and counts more than 300 members in 35 offices. “They know if something comes up, they can connect with others,” she says. A similar group, Mental Health @ Netflix, serves as a resource at the streamer. Its efforts have included sponsoring a conversation with other employee-resource groups at Netflix about cultural stigmas within the mental-health space.
Hollywood companies also are turning to digital platforms to help. Viacom CBS and Snap give complimentary access to the meditation app Headspace, while Hulu and UTA employees can access free virtual appointments with mental health specialists through the parenting app Maven. NBCU offers Guidance Resources Online for 24/7 help with things like relationships, work, children, financial issues, general wellness, and more. Apple recently launched its own mental health app called Sanvello which includes community forums, self-help modules, and coaching. Pixar uses a new mental health benefits platform called Modern Health (Jared Leto is an investor) that includes online assessments, a meditation library and therapist access. “We take a preventative and interactive approach,” says Modern Health CEO Alyson Friedensohn. “Part of the problem with EAP is you call an 800 number when you are in crisis, and they will give you a list of in-network therapists, but as you know, most therapists don’t accept insurance — that puts all the legwork on you.” Snap works with the mental-health provider platform Lyra Health, which offers video therapy and coaching.
Mental Health Issues in the entertainment industry First Aid
On Oct. 10, Comedy Central launched its Mental Health First Aid at Work program, which “teaches participants how to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of a mental health issue.” More than 75 employees have taken part. Verizon Media has also instituted Mental Health First Aid training for company leaders.
On-Set Trauma Counselors: Ava DuVernay hired on-set counselors while filming 2019’s When They See Us. “I did take advantage of it. The need for people to talk to, to help process some of the scenes was very necessary,” says actor Michael K. Williams.
Last spring, Glenn Close, founder of the Bring Change to Mind nonprofit, and nephew Calen Pick, who has schizo-affective disorder, visited Apple’s Cupertino campus for a talk on mental health issues in the entertainment industry, available to all employees globally. Other companies that are programming mental-wellness events are Endeavor (which offers meditation, yoga, and stress management sessions in five offices); Hulu (meditation, yoga, and quiet rooms); Paradigm (guided meditation sessions); Snap (journaling and aromatherapy workshops); and Scooter Braun’s SB Projects (which sponsors Mindful Fridays for employees). “It makes mental wellness just a part of what we do,” says SB Projects VP philanthropy Shauna Nep. In NYC, Viacom CBS hosts an annual weeklong wellness festival complete with therapy puppies, and a few times a week its on-site Wellness Studio becomes a “Zen Zone” so employees can practice mindfulness, meditate, or just relax in a quiet space, while at UTA, Jacobs has brought in professionals like Dr. Drew Pinsky for in-house discussions. Says Jacobs: “We’ve provided a safe space where people felt comfortable to share personal stories and offer support to their peers.”
Behind the Scenes, a nonprofit foundation that provides support to entertainment technology professionals, created the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Initiative to support entertainment industry workers and promote mental health and psychological safety.