Building back from burn out

6 years ago I would not have found the courage to share this story. Even now I feel nervous writing it.

It’s a story of experiencing a debilitating mental illness, whilst working in the fast-paced, exciting world of film distribution. I’d finally landed my dream job as Head of Publicity. But as the red carpet was rolled out, all I wanted to do was roll back into bed.

This is a story of becoming so ill, that I was unable to perform the job that I loved, and I hit rock bottom.

I was burnt out, working all hours at a pace that was not sustainable. The symptoms were emotional, but also physical. I remember one week where I had as little as 9 hours sleep. All week. At times the pain in my body was so bad that I could barely walk. I couldn’t concentrate for long enough to read a simple sentence and when people spoke, the sound to me was like nails down a chalk board. My nervous system was a mess and I felt like I was going completely mad. That is a very lonely feeling.

 

First the pain, then the shame

Shame was the overwhelming emotion that I experienced as I was signed off work due to an agonising cocktail of anxiety and depression.

I was ashamed that everyone around me could deal with the workload, the pressure, that they were tough enough and I was not. My illness was a secret that must be kept at all costs, and of course that was exhausting.

Like my fellow millennials, I didn’t grow up with social media and am sometimes uncomfortable with how we use it to bare our souls. It can feel a bit self-indulgent and well, a bit much. But, given the above reality, I can’t not talk about my experience with mental illness whilst working in the film industry, and I will keep talking, if it helps someone to feel less alone, or less ashamed.

 

Finding our voices

Speaking out about mental ill health is thankfully less taboo in 2021, but it remains a pretty terrifying prospect for some, especially if you work in the film or TV industry.

Recent research by the Film and TV Charity showed that only 31% working behind-the-scenes would talk about their mental health problem at work, dropping to just 2% of freelancers (over 50% of the workforce). This is a worrying picture when you consider that the same research showed 87% of industry workers had experienced a mental health problem, and more than half had considered suicide.

Speaking to others that have gone through the same thing, I now realise that if I’d understood how common these experiences are and hadn’t felt so afraid of being ‘found out’ that my recovery would have been much quicker. The amount of energy it takes to cover things up, not to be honest with yourself and others, to keep going – it makes it 10 times worse.

 

Strength in numbers

Luckily, I did recover and haven’t experienced a crisis like it since. A mix of medication, CBT, a healthier lifestyle where I monitor my stressors regularly and put myself first above everything has been key for me.

I’m no longer afraid to speak about who I am and what I’ve experienced, but I realise that it’s not straightforward for many working in this industry. It is fiercely competitive, surviving terrible working conditions is seen as a badge of honour, and you can be made to feel disposable.

But it is also a wonderful community, and the bonds of working together in the metaphorical trenches are unique and powerful.

So I have hope for the future, and through the work of the Film and TV Charity, I can see the roots of change for a healthier, happier industry starting to grow.

LucyPowell
surviving terrible working conditions is seen as a badge of honour,
Lucy Powell, Community Support Lead