Why It’s #time4change When it Comes to the Mental Health of Performers

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A year ago this month, The MTA launched #time4change, a mental health initiative for the arts sector. As of today, we have nearly 130 organisations signed up to the charter.

What does this mean? Over the last 12 months, hundreds of performers and technicians have found themselves with access to information on some of the more prolific mental illnesses affecting our industry. Carefully written by The MTA’s health and welfare consultant, Angie Peake, the idea is that people would read the information and list of symptoms, and if it sounded any alarm bells of familiarity, they could seek medical help sooner rather than later.

Like most illnesses, early intervention can often prevent crisis so we are trying to promote a culture of proactive intervention as opposed to reactive reconstruction work.

I suppose the most obvious question is “why?” Why the need for this email attachment? The answer is actually very simple. International research has found that one-in-three people involved in the creative industries are susceptible to mental health issues during their lifetime, higher than the accepted norm of one-in-four for non-industry people.

We wanted to start a conversation, attempt to remove the stigma attached to mental illness and provide people with a knowledge base in their inbox. Google is a marvellous thing, but within two clicks of a search most people would have found the worst prognosis for their symptoms and convinced themselves the end was nigh.

READ: Why This ‘Ethical College’ May Just be the Future of Musical Theatre Training

Angie’s fact sheet is very matter-of-fact, not alarmist. It clearly states symptoms, but also makes people aware of what therapeutic options are open to them in an attempt to treat these symptoms. A year on and #time4change is now a movement, an ideology we continue to ask producers, colleges, agencies, theatres to embrace.

When I opened The MTA in 2009, I put a mental health specialist at the heart of the faculty. Someone who my students and staff could have unlimited and confidential access to. However, even I was surprised at how many students were dealing with long-term, untreated, mental illnesses. Hence my initial search to find out if this was peculiar to my college or whether there was a bigger issue we were all missing.

We held the first #time4change conference in March last year, and whilst the attendance was poor, the empirical evidence started to become compelling. In addition to the conference, I took to Twitter to ask people for their experiences with mental health issues whilst at college. I was taken aback by the horror stories that started to unfold. Wel-meaning interventions that were ill-advised.

So much has been achieved this year: we’ve had our second conference for all the colleges signed up to the charter, which was heartening. So many good people out there attempting to do the best they could with very little resources.

That said, we still have a way to go. Colleges that have expanded over the past few years need to invest money in their pastoral care programmes. They increase the number of students but the number of counsellors stays the same (or in one instance, got smaller. Ideally, we need an industry agreement of the bare minimum students should expect at college. For example, it was disappointing to see the recently announced Federation of Drama Schools having no mention about mental health provisions. Similarly, the new criteria set out by Equity and Spotlight as a beacon of quality also had no mention of mental health support or wellbeing.

Agencies and production companies need to ensure that they’re not editing who they’re sending the Charter out to. We can’t assume that people are OK. The person struggling is seldom the person that you think.

We urgently need more theatres to sign up, to ensure that companies on tour are supported all over the U.K.—mental illness is not geographically limited to London!

So what next? I would love to see an industry funded mental health crises centre. BAPAM is great, but it doesn’t specialise in mental health, and let’s face it, they’re over-subscribed as it is. The NHS is collapsing all around us. We don’t want people on waiting lists for months on end. Let’s support each other and put our own care package in place. It could be the go-to place for colleges for advice and guidance, our very own mental health 111 service. We have a lot of wealthy people in our industry who could easily fund this resource without batting an eyelid.

The MTA already models this idea in a tiny way with our students having instant access to specialist help, and an advocate who can help and liaise with the specialist services, to get them the appropriate help that they need, whilst supporting them as they wait for it. We know that it works. I suspect my ‘crises centre’ idea is a logistical nightmare. But we work in an industry full of possibilities and hope. Maybe this is the ultimate dream we should collectively aim for?

Annemarie Lewis Thomas is a musician, composer, teacher, and director/founder of The Musical Theatre Academy.

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Annemarie Lewis Thomas
Annemarie Lewis Thomas is a musician, composer, teacher, and director/founder of The Musical Theatre Academy.
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