Entertainment Assist champions for wellbeing

Mental illness and artistic creativity are often seen as being inextricably intertwined; opposite sides of the same coin. While, as a society, we like to mythologise the lives of tortured geniuses, authors like Hemmingway, stage starlets like Judy Garland and rock stars like Hendrix, Cobain and Winehouse, the reality is brutal.

Illustration by Jacek Gaudasinski

Five entertainment industry workers in Australia attempt suicide every week. According to Entertainment Assist’s Acting General Manager Julia Edwards, addressing this tragedy requires a recognition of the unique challenges faced by workers in this industry, while simultaneously confronting the stigma that still attaches to anybody afflicted with mental illness, no matter where they work.

In 2015, the national mental health charity and advocacy organisation, Entertainment Assist, in conjunction with Victoria University released a research report with a host of compelling statistics, including:

  • 25% of performing artists, and most roadies have attempted or considered suicide, but none of the roadies surveyed had sought help
  • Over a third of performing artists, 25% of industry support workers and most roadies and crew reported mental health problems
  • Suicide attempts for Australian entertainment industry workers are more than double that of the general population
  • The levels of moderate to severe anxiety symptoms are 10 times higher than in the general population
  • The levels of depression symptoms are five times higher than in the general population

For the four years since delivering those findings, Entertainment Assist has traversed the nation, running forums and speaking to industry workers, with the hope that patterns would emerge, potential solutions would be identified, and priorities for action could be attained. This process has been enlightening, as Edwards explains.

“The research priorities that seemed to come out were more education about mental health, more support in work environments and risk management.”

Entertainment Assist already works towards addressing the first priority by offering workplaces a three-hour mental health program, known as Intermission Training, which they developed with the help of the Black Dog Institute. They have also made an incursion into the tertiary education sector, as Edwards explains.

“We did some work with the Swinburne University of Technology and we are working with industry, media, film and technology students and we are educating them around mental health and wellbeing strategies, not only self-care strategies but also peer-to-peer, which is very important.”

“If our kids are understanding mental health and they’re not afraid to talk about it as kids and we’re reducing stigma and there’s peer-to-peer strategies going on, we’re all going to be in a better place.”

“What it is giving them is a tool kit that they can pull out at any time in their life when they’re on their career pathway and continue to draw some of the skills and knowledge that they’ve learned about mental health.”

Edwards found that artists aren’t only in dire need of education on mental health but also instruction on how to obtain one of the key determinants of mental wellbeing: financial security, as Edwards explains.

“One of things that we identified is that a lot of our entertainers are sole traders and small businesses but they actually don’t see themselves as a small business. So Entertainment Assist currently sits on the Minister for Small Business Roundtable for Mental Health, representing the entertainment industry.”

“They’re actually not tapping into a very large pool of resources because they don’t identify with being a small business.”

– Julia Edwards

“Financial literacy, managing your business, managing yourself as a business, there’s a piece of work there that needs to occur.”

Another determinant of mental health that industry workers are lacking is sleep, with the rate of insomnia being four times that of the general population. This disparity is caused, in large part, to the abnormal hours that come with the territory.

In addition to the sleep debt, by diverging from the nine-to-five lifestyle, entertainment industry workers face a secondary problem: when they try to seek help, nothing’s open when they need it. Edwards says there must be a “cost free solution that isn’t nine-to-five because everyone that I know that works in the entertainment industry doesn’t work nine-to-five.”

The least likely to clock in and out during daylight hours are the backstage and technical crew, who are often forgotten about, when, as we saw earlier, roadies are suffering worse than anyone, as Edwards explains.

“We are focussed on the tech and crew side of things because these are the guys that are not in the best space.”

“They don’t get the applause and they work maybe 22 hours a day to make stuff happen. Whether it’s bumping in, bumping out, moving on, these guys are working very hard because of passion. They love it but they don’t get any recognition for what they do and they are very isolated from any sense of normal life.”

While it is taken for granted that Occupational Health and Safety standards need to apply in workplaces for employees performing physically dangerous work, such as technical crews, Edwards says that a similar approach must be applied to mentally dangerous work.

“If there’s a situation where you have a stage being set up, there’s an OHS framework. We need to recognise that there’s a mental health framework that needs to be set up. Sometimes there’s content exposure or sometimes there’s client facing roles. There’s all sorts of factors and unique stresses that people deal with that we need to recognise and have support structures for.”

With a team of patrons and ambassadors that include names like Molly Meldrum, Michael Gudinski, Curtis Stone and Rhonda Burchmore, Edwards hopes that Entertainment Assist’s message will be heard and that the industry, and the lives of those who work within it, can be transformed.

“We have the ambassadors at the top but we also work at the grassroots at the tertiary level, so there’s a place that meets in the middle. So we hope that in ten years’ time, when we start talking about mental health, it’s normal. It’s ok to have a mental health day.”

This article was first published in The Serenade Files Magazine Issue 2 (April – June 2019). Visit the Members Magazine page to read more features like this.

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