#ItAffectsMe: How Awareness Has Supported Action for Better Mental Health in the Arts

#ItAffectsMe campaigner Laura Darrall gives us an update on initiatives supporting the mental health of performers

As part of our series on mental health this Mental Health Awareness Week, here is performer and #itaffectsme campaigner Laura Darrall on the ways in which we can better address the mental health of performers, and where you can find support.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and this year it’s a cause for celebration, for change and for hope. A movement is happening within our industry that has been needed for a very long time – a movement that affects 1 in 3 performers’ lives. What is most exciting is that it is not just one movement, it is many.

Performances, podcasts, charters and campaigns all centred on mental health have been flooding the theatrical world over the past few years, forging the way to normalising conversations, in an attempt to make it as easy to say, ‘I’m struggling’ as it is to say, ‘Break a leg’.

Two years ago, after battling with panic attacks, anxiety and more OCD than you could sink a battleship with, I began a campaign called #itaffectsme, where I asked people from all over the world to take a selfie, with a post-it note stuck on their forehead reading the words ‘#itaffectsme’, to show the universality of mental health concerns.

Incredibly, the campaign went viral and has now reached 96 million people throughout the world (according to some clever analytics way beyond my remit!). However, nowhere within that number was there more support than from our industry. Actors, agents, techies, casting directors and directors all stuck their heads above the parapet - post-it notes jauntily placed - and got on board to say, ‘It affects me too’.

It was a united cry for change and movement towards the breaking down of stigma. The incredible Annemarie Lewis Thomas of the MTA began the #TIME4CHANGE Charter around the same time as #itaffectsme, saying:

We can choose as an industry whether to ignore this mental health crisis or we can decide to be proactive.
Annemarie Lewis Thomas

And it seems, as an industry full of driven, determined, emotional beings, we have chosen proactivity.

The fantastic Theatre by the Lake are launching their first ever Wellbeing Scheme for their cast and staff, taking action in the face of a genuine need within the business. Artistic Director, Conrad Lynch says:

Theatre by the Lake is delighted to be working with Laura and her amazing #itaffectsme campaign in launching a wellbeing pilot scheme for the 2018 Summer Season. In partnership with Laura, Equity and a local therapist, the theatre will be hosting a series of drop in mindfulness classes for the acting company and staff over the summer as well as one to one wellbeing sessions. We hope that we will be able to support our casts and staff not only during the working week but to help with life in general – which we all know can be tough!

This is a vital step in the right direction and hopefully others will follow suit. However, as in every industry, there is still so much more that could be done.

Over the course of the campaign, I have spoken to fellow actors about what our industry could do better to look after its members’ mental health and the one, simple change that has been prevalent in every conversation has been hearing the word ‘No’. Getting back to actors who have worked hard to prepare for an audition forms a part of the Casting Manifesto released last year, and forms an important standard practice in other industries – candidates know the outcome of their interviews, often with feedback. Why should ours be any different? This would alleviate a huge source of anxiety for performers.

Another simple change that could be made would be to ensure actors receive auditions and sides with more than 24 hours’ notice. For anyone struggling, this would give them time to prepare for any triggers, and to implement techniques or tools that help to manage their mental health, allowing them to give their best in the room.

During periods of unemployment, often what can increase stress and low mood is being inactive and feeling out of the loop. Theatres can make an incredible difference to actors and other creatives' sense of productivity by opening up performance and rehearsal spaces when not in use. A stage standing empty for 10 hours a day is a waste of an inspiring space and the benefit it could bring to an actor’s sense of worth and wellbeing is huge.

To combat the inevitable instability and to encourage conversation, actors Christian Edwards and Harry Long have set up an initiative called Talk Community, creating a weekly space for anybody working in the arts industry to ‘get together and simply talk’. The aim is to gather like-minded people in an informal atmosphere, to create a supportive community and give people a sense of belonging.

Our industry is full of some of the most creative, compassionate people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and maybe it’s time we treat them with the same compassion in return, with a renewed sense of honesty, integrity and purpose, embracing all that we are - not just the shiny bits we show on our headshots.

Laura Darrall ActorLaura Darrall is an actor, writer and mental health advocate. She trained at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and has performed in seasons at the RSC, Shakespeare's Globe and Theatre by the Lake. Laura founded #itaffectsme two years ago and can often be found up and down the country giving talks about mental health with a rucksack full of post-it notes to boot.

Image Credit: Michael Shelford