Emotional Health in the Entertainment Industry

Let's face it. The life of the performing arts professional isn't one filled with stability, equilibrium, and the ordinary. If it were, it would probably lose much of its appeal. In one day of auditioning, taking classes, and rehearsing, an actor can experience a bigger emotional roller-coaster ride than many people encounter in a week.

Some performers thrive on that energy. Nervousness before an audition is normal; stage fright before a performance is common. But avoiding auditions because you fear the pain of being rejected is unhealthy; so is anxiety that keeps you offstage or hinders your performance.

There is nothing to indicate that performing artists and those in the entertainment industry are any more likely to suffer mental difficulties than people in other professions. Often the problems performers suffer from are profession-specific--due to elements such as the intense competition, a lack of money, and career instability. However, the underlying causes stem from something more universal.

Anxiety, depression, and panic disorder can frequently be traced back to family history. Statistics, observes therapist Diane Nichols, president and co-director of New York City's Performing Arts Psychotherapy Center, indicate that people who come from backgrounds in which those things were common stand a greater chance of being afflicted with them. Alcoholism can also be a contributing factor to self-esteem.

The center has "a larger than usual group of people who come from alcoholic families. That's created a kind of need for the attention that wasn't met in the family," explains Nichols. "If you're working from low self-esteem, part of what you do when you go into an audition is try to please. If you try to please, you can't read what the other person wants. They're sitting out there in a neutral space; you're in the process of projecting something onto them."

Individuals from healthier backgrounds often have more self-esteem and this carries over into their professional relationships. "I find they create a very different kind of relationship to agents and casting directors. There's more a sense of give and take. They deal better in terms of interpersonal relationships, which are essential in terms of the business end."

SUB: Conquering the Blues

When a client comes to the center for the first time feeling despondent, Nichols, her partner, Rosalyn Gilbert, or one of their associates conducts an analysis to get a sense of what kind of treatment would be best for that person. Nichols stresses the importance of finding a therapist who is sensitive to the creative personality. "I think all therapists in New York work with performing artists, but sometimes performers have told us that they've had treatments where therapists said, 'If you're not making money and you're not getting what you need out of this, then you should just get out,' without understanding the underlying sense of identity and excitement and need to do this--and without helping the person process that."

But achieving success doesn't always mean finding peace of mind--not if there are underlying factors for unhappiness that haven't been dealt with. "I often see performers that, when they begin to be very successful, if they came from a parental background where the parents needed something--and you see this all the time with tennis players--they're in conflict about succeeding. If they succeed it feels like it's taken over by the parent."

One avoidance tactic that Nichols says keeps some artists from seeking therapy is the belief that "their creativity is attached to their craziness . They believe they'll become dull and the same as others." Nichols asserts that the two do not go hand in hand.

She stresses the importance of developing and maintaining personal relationships. "When people travel in regional theatre or with a company, it's an enormously intimate environment but then when they come home I find that often people don't keep up those relationships."

In a society where the work people do shapes their identities, the times when a performing artist is not employed can be trying. Nichols remembers occasions where she was walking down the street with a performer who encountered a colleague. "People never said, 'How are you?' They always said, 'What are you doing?' " Having other things going on in your life aside from your showbiz career is crucial--whether it's family and friends, hobbies and pastimes, or another career that you can earn a living from.

SUB: Anxiety and Support

"Performance anxiety is a very common anxiety," says Donald Klein, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and director of psychiatric research for the New York State Psychiatric Institute. "Normally, for most people just plain practice and exposure will take care of that." For those who experience severe cases of performance anxiety, a doctor may prescribe beta blockers--pills that block nervous reaction by lowering the blood pressure. They can be taken on an as-needed basis usually 20 minutes to a half-hour before a performance.

For some, a support group is an important tool in easing their pain. The Actors' Fund of America, with offices in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, offers support groups and a referral service for entertainment-industry professionals.

"The mutuality in support groups can never be underestimated," notes Moira Voss, coordinator of STEP (Services to Employable Profession-als) and mental health programs. "Just hearing about other people who are going through the same thing can be so beneficial and so empowering." The Actors' Fund has support groups for people with HIV and AIDS and their care partners, seminars about money, and a program for people recovering from chemical dependency. The last can be a particularly tricky problem for entertainment professionals to deal with, says Voss, given the nature of their jobs.

"I think we've found that it's a little bit easier to hide the problem because, unlike on a 9-to-5 job, you don't have someone always expecting you to be somewhere. You might have a job on the road and then go into another job on the road. You might not be at a place long enough for an employer to pick up the problem."

The Actors' Fund also refers people to therapists and support groups around New York City. Voss interviews therapists before adding them to her roster. Expertise and flexibility are two of the things she looks for. Most of the therapists have sliding scales than can go as low as $35-$40 for those in private practice to $15 for therapists at institutes.

How can you tell if you should seek counseling? Voss says that if someone thinks he needs help, then he probably does.

"It's not easy to ask for help, so to set up an appointment and then to complete the appointment in my experience there's probably something they need help with. I get a little distressed when I hear of people having gone to a therapist and the therapist says they're too healthy. I haven't met anyone who couldn't benefit from some support just to function better.