Piloting the Toolkit for Mentally Healthy Productions

April Kelley + Sara Huxley discuss mental health behind-the-scenes, representation and piloting the toolkit.

It’s easy to forget how much what we watch shapes our outlook on life. We’re 90s babies, so we learnt about love from “10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU and female empowerment from THELMA & LOUISE”! 

But when you don’t see yourself represented on screen, you can be left feeling lonely and confused.  

Recently we both realised just how unhealthy our industry really is – the long, antisocial hours, the pressure, sexism, racism, bullying, the cliquey nature of a set, the lack of empathy.  

It only really dawned us when we were freelancing in production teams on much larger projects. With bigger budgets, we thought people would be doing a lot more to support people, but the environment could be extremely stressful and, at times, brutal. For an industry that looks like literal magic on screen, it sure as hell can feel like you’re cursed when you’re making it  

We started wondering why the process of making film and TV can be so bad for our own health, and why so little has been done so far to improve things. And why was there such little representation? 

 

April: to cut straight to the point– I’m bisexual and I live with bipolar disorder. Growing up I had a lot of sleepless nights. I wondered if I was gay or straight before even realising that bisexuality was a thing and not a segue into lesbianism. On top of that I went through 10 years in fear, hiding, and experiencing misdiagnosis before finally being diagnosed with bipolar disorder 

My teenage years and the 10 years leading up to my diagnosis would have been a hell of a lot easier if I had seen myself represented on screen from time to time. Itook Miss Congeniality to come along before I finally made the connection and realised I was into women! 

A few years ago, having sat through dozens of film festivals, including LGBTQI+ friendly ones, I thought ‘where are the bisexual stories?! Where are the bi programmes at these festivals?’  

Subsequently, in 2019 our bisexual short TREACLE” was born, which premiered at BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film FestivalThe response to “TREACLE” went beyond anything I could have imagined. I started thinking about other parts of me that I’ve never seen on screen, including authentic female friendship. That’s how “JUST IN CASE” and “DO THIS FOR ME” came about. 

JUST IN CASEDir. Kirsty Robinson Ward and starring Philip Glenister, explores the complex nature of bipolar and the notion of a ‘just in case’ suicide note. It’s loosely based on the relationship between me and my dad. When I was a teenager and unwell, my dad used to take me to service stations to get out of the house because he knew I wouldn’t see anyoneIt’s a simple film, about an honest portrayal that isn’t full of drama, because so often these conversations aren’t 

DO THIS FOR MEDir. Marnie Baxter and starring Taj Atwal, Adelle Leonce and Tilly Keeper, follows a group of girls over the course of an evening. It’s about maintaining friendships in your 20s when everyone is juggling careers, romancethe fear of turning 30, trying to stay in touch, all keeping up appearances. God forbid there be something wrong in our lives and we ask for help right?! But sometimes the bravest thing to do is ask for help.  

When it comes to on-screen representation, we have a long way to go. It’s something I feel so passionate about.  

 

Sara: I totally agree. I grew up with a mum who has bipolar, so I’ve experienced the other side. I also sadly have had two deaths by suicide in my family and understand the devastation it can cause to loved ones. I feel like we have a duty as filmmakers to tell these stories and empower people to be brave, tell audiences that it’s ok to ask for help. We’re both driven by the idea that putting a powerful story on screen can create change and this has shaped our recent work. 

 

April + Sara: when we started working with the charity to pilot the Toolkit for Mentally Healthy Productions, we realised that webeen implementing a lot of similar ideas instinctively since we started working together.  

Look, we’re no saints, nor do we own a high horse, but we live in a world where people now have time to circulate Covid protocols and hold briefings. So why can’t people do the same for mental health? Ultimately, it comes down to communication and empathy.  

Hearing about the charity’s work on mental health blew our minds and was a relief at the same time. Finally, someone had exposed the situation. We knew then that we had to get involved in whatever way we could.  

We ended up piloting the Toolkit on both of our shorts, and we’re proud to say we were the first ever production and company to do so 

The project manager for the Toolkit Valeria Bullo supported us throughout the process. Given our productions were shorts we took a pick & mix approach to the guidance – we produced a mental health policy, incorporated the information into briefing and again at production meetings, we included the Support Line on call sheets, made sure everyone’s work hours were healthy, and the1st AD spoke in front of everybody at the start of each day. We also took the time to educate the team on the subject matter of the films  

We’re only ‘mini, but the change has to and can start anywhere. It needs to come from the top, whoever that might be – execs, producers or HoDs. The Film and TV Charity were there, arms wide open to support and guide us. All it takes is a little bit of people’s time. And we know ‘time is money’ – but time to listen could improve somebody’s wellbeing, potentially as far as saving a life, you just never know.  

 

April: I know it’s often said in our industry we’re not saving lives, we’re just making films and we get that. But, we may well be changing lives, and we could be saving lives  both of people watching and people in the business of making films. For me, film is still the best medicine and keeps me going on my darkest of days. 

 

Sara: wdo actually have a duty of care to our crew as well. Everyone is more productive, creative and functions at their best if they’re supported not overworked, especially if theyre not scared of the people theyre working with! 

 

April + Sara: a mentallyhealthy set up shouldn’t be a chore – it should be second nature. And representation on screen tackling difficult and complex subjects shouldn’t be avoided, it should be embraced. We’re trying not end this article with a platitude, but…be kind! You sincerely have no idea what someone else is going through. 

We started wondering why the process of making film and TV can be so bad for our own health, and why so little has been done so far to improve things
April and Sara, Producers