Mental illnesses that cause disturbances in thinking, emotions, and behavior can impact anyone at any age, including actors. Understanding the complexities and knowing when to seek treatment is an important part of any actor’s toolkit. We spoke to a few experts for advice on what actors can do to maintain their mental health.
- It’s significant: This is about more than just double-checking that you unplugged the iron or feeling low after the end of a vacation. According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illness is an umbrella term for diagnosable mental disorders that involve “significant changes in thinking, emotion, and/or behavior,” as well as “distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.”
- It can impact anyone: Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. According to the APA, nearly one in five adults in the U.S. experience it in some form, and JAMA Pediatrics notes that more than 16% of children have at least one mental health disorder. What’s more, 54.7% of adults with mental illnesses don’t receive treatment.
- It can take many forms: Currently, there are more than 300 types of mental illnesses listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A few common ones are depression, anxiety, addiction disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and bipolar disorder.
Like most health conditions, mental illnesses rarely have a single cause. Risk factors can include genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices—and these can often occur at the same time.
Only a handful of studies have employed rigorous scientific methods to investigate the relationship between mental illness and careers in the arts, and the majority have looked at writers and musicians. In one study whose findings were published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, researchers found no difference between the incidence of mental illness in creative and non-creative groups.
However, a 2015 survey of 782 actors conducted by the University of Sydney found that respondents experienced higher rates of mental illness than the general population—particularly anxiety and depression—often relying on “alcohol and drugs to cope with the pressure and burden of their roles.”
Matt Wood, whose credits include Broadway’s “SpongeBob SquarePants” and the first national tour of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” concurs. He’s seen a therapist on and off over the years for feelings of depression and anxiety related to the stress of professional acting.
Wood says that the prevalence of mental health problems is an open secret in the industry, and he believes that the topic should be discussed more candidly. “Eight shows a week is not easy, and that high-stress, up-and-down, hot-and-cold environment isn’t always the best place to deal with existing or newly developing mental health issues,” he says. “Tensions are high, and people are already in a vulnerable state because of the nature of the work.”
“Stress for anyone can accelerate or exacerbate almost any mental disorder,” says Professor Patrick Corrigan, who teaches psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology; he also has major depression and generalized anxiety disorder.
“If [people] are feeling increased levels of stress, [it’s important] that they back off before it becomes a major challenge,” he cautions. “A change in anything should be paid attention to. If you find yourself eating more or less, crying more, sleeping more or less, or in conflict more, these could all be signs that something may be going on.”
“As an actor, you understand the meaning of the word ‘rejection’ to the core. Getting the thick skin that is needed is not easy,” says actor Lina Maya (“Pasión Prohibida,” “Una Maid en Manhattan”).
Wood agrees. “There is such a massive amount of rejection that an actor must endure throughout their careers,” he says. “The audition process can be brutal, especially when you’re often asked to prepare and perform pages and pages of material, knowing that it’s highly likely you’ll never hear back from these people again—but then, on to the next one! It’s a lot of highs and lows, sometimes more of one than the other at any given time.”
Playing characters with mental illness
According to University of Minnesota Medical School professor Michelle Sherman, Ph.D., “When you really get into character, your blood pressure goes up, your heart rate increases, and your mind and body can’t differentiate between reality and acting.”
“The art of becoming another person leaves the actor vulnerable,” says Robert Levy, M.D., professor of family medicine and community health at UMN Medical School and treasurer of the Minnesota Society of Addiction Medicine. “They must open their mind and soul to the character and are at unique risk of taking on the mental anguish that the character has. I think about Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ on Broadway and felt that [playing] the role of James cast him along his path into substance use disorder.”
“The exhausting nature of the work is a potential contributor to poor mental health,” Wood says. “Tacking on a long commute home and trying to take care of everything else in your life can leave very little time to deal with your own issues.”
A gig that involves increased physical demands, such as dance or stunt work, can increase your risk of injury; sustaining one could contribute to mental illness down the line. “Many professional performing artists are self-employed, so a physical injury, which might impact their ability to perform—at least, to the standard that they want or expect to—could cause a great deal of emotional strain,” says Christine Guptill, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Health Sciences.
“Since many physical challenges that are encountered by performing artists are chronic or episodic in nature, the constant strain could certainly be related to depression or anxiety, or perhaps even contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder,” she adds.
Access to health care
“Acting work can be famously unsteady, and maintaining quality health care through our unions is dependent on weeks and days worked,” Wood explains. “I’ve been off and on a good union health-care plan over the last decade several times, and that’s made it incredibly difficult to maintain consistency with treatment for various physical and mental health issues.”
Though limited access to health care is an issue for most people in the U.S., it particularly impacts actors and other contract workers. “We need to be in top mental and physical shape to handle the demands of the job, but we can’t get access to the quality health care we need until we work a certain amount of weeks on a union contract,” Wood says.
Thanks to the nature of the profession, most actors feel the stress of financial insecurity. “When you are going from gig to gig, there is never a guarantee that you’ll earn enough to make a living just from acting alone,” Maya says. According to a study published in Nature Communications, only 2% of actors make a living from the profession, and 90% are out of work at any given time.
Differences in how mental illness presents
Identifying mental health issues in children can be challenging, particularly since the hormonal fluctuations that take place during puberty can create emotional volatility.
“Mental illness can look differently in children as compared to adults,” Corrigan says. For example, a “teen may be depressed and show more anger than sadness.” Significant changes in personality or behavior that could indicate mental health struggles. And of course, any mention of suicide or suicidal ideation should always be taken seriously.
Access to treatment
“It may be difficult [for kids] to seek treatment on their own without their parents or guardian,” Corrigan explains. Half of children with a mental health disorder don’t receive treatment or counseling from a professional, according to JAMA Pediatrics.
Despite what the tabloids say, not every child actor experiences mental illness. Haley Joel Osment (“The Sixth Sense,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”) told the Independent that people often don’t hear about the positive experiences and outcomes for child stars. “I think sometimes there’s an expectation for there to be that darkness,” the actor said. “But I think there are a lot more stories of people who had positive experiences working as children and didn’t have that kind of clichéd storyline going forward. And that’s been the case for me.”
- Laverne Cox (“Inventing Anna,” “Orange Is the New Black”): Cox is in therapy to work through her trauma caused by anti-trans violence and erasure. And the toll has been high; according to the Trevor Project, in the U.S., one in four Black trans or nonbinary youth attempted suicide in 2022. Cox encourages her fellow trans people to prioritize their mental health: “I think we can simultaneously acknowledge systemic oppression and inequities and also say, ‘In the face of this systemic oppression, what is my part in bettering my life—bettering my mental health?’ ”
- Leonardo DiCaprio (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” “The Revenant”): When DiCaprio portrayed Hollywood mogul Howard Hughes—who infamously struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder—in “The Aviator,” he faced a unique challenge: He himself has OCD. “I was trying to be the character. It became real bothersome, even after the filming,” he said.
- Lady Gaga (“A Star Is Born,” “House of Gucci”): In 2016, the singer-songwriter-actor opened up about having post-traumatic stress disorder due to being sexually assaulted. On Apple TV+’s “The Me You Can’t See,” Gaga said, “Everybody that’s at home now that’s suffering, I would like to first say that you surround yourself with someone that validates you. And when I say ‘validates you,’ I mean someone that believes you, that cares about you, and tells you that your pain matters, and it’s real.”
- Taraji P. Henson (“Empire,” “Hidden Figures”): Henson started experiencing debilitating anxiety and depression in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, which led her to seek therapy. She encourages others in the Black community to speak up about their mental health struggles. “I hope that one day we can all be free to talk about mental health and be OK with seeking help,” she told Self.
- Elizabeth Olsen (“WandaVision,” “Love & Death”): When Olsen first started having crippling panic attacks, she didn’t understand what was happening to her body. Fortunately, a friend helped her find treatment for her anxiety. “If I went from cold to hot, hot to cold, full to hungry, hungry to full—any kind of shift in my body—my whole body thought, Uh-oh, something’s wrong! And I just started spiraling. It was so weird,” she said.
- Elliot Page (“The Umbrella Academy,” “Inception”): Before he transitioned, Page experienced panic attacks brought on by gender dysphoria. He reported that he collapsed after the premiere for “Inception.” “That was something that’s happened frequently in my life, usually corresponding with a panic attack,” he said.
- Daniel Radcliffe (“Miracle Workers,” “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”): In the wake of the “Harry Potter” films, Radcliffe began drinking heavily to deal with the anxiety of being thrust into the limelight. He was later diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. “I was living in constant fear of who I’d meet, what I might have said to them, what I might have done with them. So I’d stay in my apartment for days and drink alone,” he recalled.
Understand your genetic risk
People with a family history of mental illness are more susceptible to having one themselves. According to the National Institutes of Health, conditions such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, major depression, and schizophrenia may be genetic. That said, just because a close relative has a mental illness doesn’t mean you’ll develop it as well. But it’s a good idea to discuss your level of risk, as well as symptoms to watch out for, with your health-care provider.
“Staying well is a preventative treatment and can maintain mental health,” Corrigan says. “Continuing to do things like sleeping, exercising, eating a healthy diet, doing hobbies, and staying in community with like-minded people—a faith community or others you can share with—are all important to maintaining good mental health.”
Ask for support
It’s important to have people you can trust to fall back on, both personally and professionally. “Action is needed to make sure performers are rested and have the support and space they need to address mental health concerns,” Wood says. “I think we need to utilize swings and understudies and make sure performers aren’t getting completely burnt out physically and mentally every week.”
Try to be open about your mental health struggles, and reach out for help before your symptoms become too severe. “Therapy and medications can be highly effective,” Levy says. “And all of us, even actors, need time off to recharge and rejuvenate, especially after a difficult or emotional role.”
Don’t be swayed by stigma
The level of misconceptions and shame surrounding mental illness can make it even harder to cope with. “In general, there is a lot of stigma around seeking help for mental health problems,” Levy says. “I would say that whatever we can do to reduce this stigma and improve both access and coverage—i.e., lower out-of-pocket costs for actors—to mental health services would be a huge help.”
Corrigan agrees. “Stigma can be a big problem—even bigger than mental illness. It’s bad enough being depressed, but then adding shame or other inappropriate emotions can make things even more difficult,” he says. “You have goals? Then you have a right to pursue those goals. Simply don’t accept stigma or shame.”