Putting TV’s Mental Health Back In The Picture
By Alex Pumfrey, CEO
People love working in television and film. It is a joy and a privilege. But it can also be tough.
At the Film & Television Charity we hear stories every day about the strain, stress and toll work can take on bright and brilliant people. The stories the industry at large does not hear, because people feel they can’t speak up, and perhaps because the ears have been closed.
We know that 1 in 4 of people experience mental ill-health each year. Mental health has rightly become a hot topic in the media – and of course this is Mental Health Awareness Week. Workplaces are developing mental health strategies and training mental health first-aiders.
In TV-land we’re clearly getting much better at on-screen portrayal of mental health, and there’s good evidence to show the wider societal benefits of this. The Mind Media Awards celebrate the best examples, including the ground-breaking Hollyoaks’ #DontFilterFeelings campaign.
But how much do we know about mental health inside the TV industry?
Writing today as we struggle with the news of the suicide of another TV contributor, and the impact that this will have on the crew and wider production community, I want to make three points about mental ill-health inside the industry: firstly, that we’ve ignored it; secondly, that we’ve enabled it; and thirdly, that we’ve legitimised it.
“Yes, it’s a brilliant sector to work in, but it also places high demands on its people”
1. We’ve ignored our industry’s mental health
Actually, and astonishingly, we know nothing of the real nature and prevalence of mental ill-health in the TV and film industries. We put out provocative and brilliant programming, but have never turned that gaze in on ourselves as an industry.
Work has been done in other countries. A 2016 study in Australia showed much higher levels of mental ill-health in TV and film than amongst the population as a whole:
– Whereas 4% of the general population were found to experience moderate or severe anxiety, this figure was 42% in an industry sample, more than 10 times higher;
– While 3% of the general population experienced moderate or severe depression, it was found to be 17% of those working in TV and film, nearly 6 times higher; and
– In the general population 2% of people were found to have had suicidal ideation in the last 12 months and that figure was 19% for those working in the industry, nearly 10 times higher.
These figures are truly shocking. This isn’t just about the mental ill-health that exists in the industry as it does anywhere, it suggests there is something going on in the sector which contributes to much higher levels of mental ill-health. Is it working practices? Is it power structures? Is it access to support?
We simply don’t know. We don’t know the state of our industry’s mental health, and we don’t know what can help – or hinder – it. Despite the public profile of the topic, despite the obvious fact that a well workforce is crucial to creative and commercial success, mental health has been ignored as a specific and serious issue for our industry in the UK.
2. We’ve enabled our industry’s mental ill-health
“There’s rarely anywhere to turn to talk without risk of being seen as ‘difficult’ and jeopardising your next gig.“
The outpouring of revelations about sexual harassment and bullying after Weinstein have horrified us. In the past 18 months we’ve learned how our industry’s power structure lends itself to bullying. But we’ve not turned that into a proper examination of the wider mental health effects that come with it.
Two-thirds of the industry is freelance where work-life can be exciting but precarious. As freelancers often point out to us: “there is no HR department”. There’s rarely anywhere to turn to talk without risk of being seen as ‘difficult’ and jeopardising your next gig.
So, without anywhere to talk safely about the impact of a 40-hour shift without sleep; of viewing traumatic footage in a newsroom editing suite; of missing your best friend’s wedding for an over-running production; of being told that ‘if you put a foot wrong you’ll never work again’; of never getting positive feedback; of worrying about the travel costs of the first job you’ve just landed; or that your weekend work means you never see your kid’s football matches; of looking after vulnerable contributors and no one every asking ‘but how are you?’ (all stories I have heard personally in just the past few weeks) – is it any wonder that the people who are the lifeblood of our business, suffer?
Of course there will always be deadlines, shoots on location, antisocial hours. But we’ve never questioned what could be changed, done differently, or how the people making these personal sacrifices for the love of their work could be better supported.
Watch Alex in conversation at the recent RTS event
3. We’ve legitimised it
The CEO of a well-known production company once said to me that when asked about the secret of his success he had replied “we take madness and turn it into money”.
There’s a pervasive and frankly horrific idea within our sector (and probably elsewhere) that you have to live close to the edge to produce your most creative work. That creative minds are fragile minds. That mental ill-health is all rather inevitable. But hey, you get the privilege of working in the creative industries.
By allowing the trope of the mad creative genius to persist we tacitly condone mental ill-health as either acceptable or – worse – actually necessary for creative success. I roundly reject the idea that ill-health (in any form) be an accepted by-product of work, and say it’s time we called this out. If there is a greater incidence of mental ill-health in our sector, that only calls for greater mental health support.
So, what can we do?
In early 2017 a location manager by the name of Michael Harm took his life. I didn’t know Michael, but before he died he left a message for a close colleague saying that he hadn’t felt supported by his own industry. That person approached us and was an important catalyst for our Film & TV Support Line which launched in April last year, and has already helped more than 1000 people: offering them emotional, practical and financial support when they need it most.
We want to go deeper to properly understand mental health in our sector. We want to work with industry to face this issue, find out what’s really going on, and develop a coordinated response with real scale and impact.
This year we will begin a major new project to research and take action on mental health within the sector, starting with a seminal industry-wide survey launching in June.
We are then convening an Industry Taskforce on Mental Health, with the support of Secretary of State Margot James, to steer and challenge that work, and turn our findings into a practical action plan.
Michael asked for our industry to do better. We want to work with industry to rise to that challenge.
To find out the true picture of mental health in our industry we need as many people as possible to tell us their experiences – good and bad, of managing their mental health. Please give us your email address here to take part.
The Film & TV Support Line is free, confidential, and available 24/7 for issues big or small: 0800 054 00 00
 Source: Mind 2009 and 2016
 Source: Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry: Dr Julie van den Eynde, Professor Adrian Fisher, Associate Professor Christopher Sonn, October 2016. Figures are rounded to the nearest whole number. Industry figures cited are an average of Group 1 and Group 2 samples.