Mental Health Awareness in Film

I am a crew member of the Art Department with over fifteen years’ experience in the UK film and television industry. Five years ago, after being diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), I was introduced to a new type of therapy, Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT). I spent almost a year in denial about this and, though offered therapy I refused to participate.  I felt somewhat ashamed and embarrassed by this diagnosis, especially when it came to my work life. Gradually everything in my life became harder and, at times, unbearable.  Working as a freelancer there has always been challenges along the way, but then suddenly the difficulty with maintaining any work/life balance finally took its toll. 
I recognised I was becoming emotionally dis regulated more often, and there was no support in place at work.  So, I finally, booked myself into a DBT Group and began a strict, detailed, challenging, scary and incredible skills training practice to gain an understanding, acceptance and dialogue about my mental health.  As I grew, I felt a confidence and a responsibility to share this journey and speak up about my mental health, especially at work.     

So, three years ago I opened up to a trusted colleague about my own struggles to sustain a balanced life and the painful intrusion of ill mental health.  My experiences, it turns out, were far from new. These initial conversations lead to many others, and over the course of the last three years many colleagues have shared with me their experiences of mental health trials, diagnosed or undiagnosed.  How working in the industry has contributed to a vast list of mental health illnesses, of the challenges faced and without any HR or Wellbeing Department to turn to for support and guidance. 

A 2016 study in Australia showed much higher levels of mental ill-health in TV and film than amongst the population as a whole:

– Whereas 4% of the general population were found to experience moderate or severe anxiety, this figure was 42% in an industry sample, more than 10 times higher
– While 3% of the general population experienced moderate or severe depression, it was found to be 17% of those working in TV and film, nearly 6 times higher
– In the general population 2% of people were found to have had suicidal ideation in the last 12 months and that figure was 19% for those working in the industry, nearly 10 times higher.

A 2007 study of freelancers in the media industry found “an elevated risk of poor subjective health among freelance workers who are exposed to adverse psychosocial work conditions”.

The total cost to employers of mental health problems among their staff is estimated at £34.9 billion each year. Across the UK, mental ill health is the leading cause of sickness absence.
And a recent Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development study highlighted the impact that mental ill health can have on organisations. The study found that:
• 37% of sufferers are more likely to get into conflict with colleagues
• 57% find it harder to juggle multiple tasks
• 80% find it difficult to concentrate
• 62% take longer to do tasks

During these informal discussions I spoke with people across our industry. I heard many times of highly creative, talented and experienced industry professionals having left their job due to mental health issues and not having the support in place at work. I heard of breakdowns, of addictions developed, usually as a result of self-medicating with alcohol, drugs and sex.  But the most devastating of them all was suicides.  2017 saw a friend and Production Designer, Alan MacDonald die by suicide, that same year Location Manager, Michael Harm also took his life. Harm left a note stating that he hadn't felt supported by his industry and that he felt alone.  2018 saw a friend and Unit Nurse, Morag Webster, die by suicide and 2019 saw yet another suicide by a member of crew within the industry. 

The note left by Harm was an important catalyst for change and awareness within the industry.  Thanks to Alex Pumfrey, CEO, and her staff at The Film and TV Charity, they've developed a 24/7 Film and TV Support Line in April 2018 and have since helped over 1,000 people: offering them emotional support, practical and financial support when they need it the most.   Please call this number if you are in need of help: 0800 054 00 00
Thanks to the bravery and courage of those speaking up, and for those standing up to Weinstein, with the evolution of social media and #MeToo and #TimesUp there is  now an alertness regarding ill mental health, not just within the industry, but across the entire nation.  
Since I began looking into this there has also been movement from BECTU, the union for the industry, with their Eyes Half Shut campaign resulting in the start of great consciousness. There are now eight principles introduced by the British Film Institute (BFI) which aim to reduce the stress of our working environment and ensure we are not vulnerable to abuse, (http://www.bfi.org.uk/about-bfi/policy-strategy/set-principles-screen-industry).

I could see how deeply colleagues cared, how productions didn't know what to do in some cases. So, what can we do? What can I do?  These mental health trials are faced by people in every profession, most of which have in place a HR department, Wellbeing Managers, even "safe spaces", so why doesn't our industry?  We as crew members, and as a business, need to look out for ourselves, especially as we have no such department (yet!)  Every single member of crew has access to a Unit Nurse, covering all things regarding physical health, but what about mental health?  We do have a problem and we also have a great desire to fix it, to improve experiences of those working with us and for us, and to find a solution. We just don’t know how to do this whilst keeping a highly competitive, demanding and productive industry going.   But I have an idea, a passion and now my life’s ambition and I have already begun my training.  Details of which are to follow.

As a society, we’ve yet to fully break the ‘mental health stigma’, though times are definitely changing for the better. A large percentage of the population still does not feel protected or secure to use the very words ‘mental health’.  So, let’s create a ‘safe space’ for crew to attend at work. Let’s utilise that HR / Wellbeing Department.

Mind’s research, found that 95% of employees called in sick with stress gave a different reason for their absence. In 2015 to 2016, 11.7 million working days were lost due to stress, depression or anxiety.  Not only are people feeling unable to truly share what they are struggling with, production companies are losing thousands, if not millions of hours and money.  A Wellbeing Department put to practice will benefit all crew and show support on a daily basis, which will have a knock-on effect for production itself and ensure the continuation of a shoot.  Only a few days ago an entire production was shut down at Leavesden Studios due to two members of crew physically harming one another, causing serious damage as this incident involved a stabbing. We do not know more than this but, as humans, we do know that when under pressure, sleep deprived, anxious, scared, feeling insecure, worried and stressed our senses become scrambled and we are likely to see our thinking and actions change.  Could this incident have been avoided if there was a onset presence of a Mental Health First Aider affiliated with the Wellbeing Department?

I am a fully certified (2018-2021) Mental Health First Aider, having attended a two day training course with MHFA England (UK), along with an additional course at Thrive NYC (USA).  I have also begun exploring the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy skills, introducing them to each and every member of crew when on set.  These evidence-based skills are designed to successfully reduce stress in moments of difficulty and negative patterns of thinking. 
I created t-shirts and hoodies with the words 'How are you' on the front and 'Mental Health First Aider' on the back and wore them on set almost every day.  I also designed a dinner jacket with 'How are you' on the front and '#mentalhealthinfilm' on the reverse to wear to meetings and formal events, such as the Bafta film and television awards.
By having this visual aid present on set during my last job was proof that having such a role, and therefore a department, available will be a success, and may even help save lives.  I was approached, and able to employ the skills I had learnt and promote mental health awareness in film. At least ten crew members, on set alone, and three members of cast, came to me for support, advice and guidance, two of which were of serious concerns.   
This brings me on to the Health and Safety side of things, and the therefore the legal information.  I am in partnership with Matt Longley who set up '6ff the Spotlight', a charity https://www.6ftfrom.org/ with the sole aim to improve mental wellbeing of music and film crew in the UK. Matt and I have been in talks for almost a year now and he is working on re-writing guidelines and standards within the Health and Safety requirements.  Such adjustments may help make the need for a Wellbeing Department legal in the UK.   There is a lot of fear towards who will be held accountable, who will be to blame and what will productions do if a member of their crew does indeed experience a serious mental health problem.  Understandably this is of genuine importance to work out what actions and steps must be put in place.

I began a Go Fund Me campaign to enable me to look into this a little deeper. Donations reached £2,000 in just over a month merely through word of mouth and from colleagues who wish to see a change. Each and every level of the business has expressed a wish to improve things and a willingness to contribute to a solution. If one could be found. I believe that this is that very possible solution. But what does that look like?

I am committed to continuing these discussions, opening the debate and working alongside those who can better understand the issue’s and how we can address them in an industry appropriate way.
This space is a place to drop in, to take 5 to 10 minutes tending to breathing exercises proven to lower blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels in the body.  To partake in a short-guided meditations before you return to work. It is a trained Mental Health First Aider equip to teach skills in reducing anxiety and mood management. It is a conversation with someone neutral to diffuse things.  It is also an on-going presence amongst crew on set, and in the offices, blending in and forming awareness.  It is daily communication, face-to-face, even via WhatsApp groups (a method already tested during my last job).  Think about it it takes a crew member 4 to 10 minutes to go to the Unit Nurse for a Berocca, for painkillers, or even leave the set to go outside for a cigarette break. This offering would take the same time but make a profound difference in the wellbeing of our crew. It is space available throughout the working day, a space for all to visit in confidence or with colleagues. It is a space, at lunchtime, dedicated to meditation, simple stress revealing yoga poses. It is a safe space to disperse stress and anxiety so we can get on with the work we love. A space staffed by a trained individual, a member of the film industry, who understands the nuances of the industry, the schedule demands, the long hours, the pressures and rhythm of a production. Someone who knows when to refer, and with the resources to do so, via production and external help. It is everything Heads of Departments, Producers and crew want to do, but don’t always have the time. With four suicides in two years, now is the time to change and make this department a reality.

To begin with I am seeking a minimum of £12,000 in sponsorship for a research period which will assist me with any training/studying I may have to undertake. To assist and fund a trial pop up of this ‘safe space’ within a production.  This shall enable the opportunity to gain data and statistics as to how this space may be used, and with how many crew and cast attending. 

So your Support Will:
• Help develop a pop up, or series of pop ups, in productions/studios in the UK for feedback and development.
• A series of discreet interviews and facilitated discussion with test groups from the industry about challenges faced both in managing wellbeing issues and prevention, and the potential for a safe space.
• Review of support available across the industry at present, working closely with The Film and TV Charity, 6ff the spotlight and possibly BAFTA and BFI.
• Review in association with leading mental health charities, training providers and initiatives (Including Mind, CALM, Time to Change and the Mental Health Foundation UK) and visits to mental health ambassadors across other industries to compare approach.
• Any and all results, feedback and statistics to be shared online via this site, and social media platforms.

By supporting these conversations you are showing your commitment to developing an approach to wellbeing at work that protects and improves mental health for everyone, whilst supporting those people who experience distress.
Please get in touch to offer your support, make a pledge on the Go Fund Me page or ask any questions. THANK YOU for your time and patience.

Please do share.  I shall keep you all updated with my progression and please contact me at any time for more information or a chance to meet up.

More about me and my work here:
www.leoannathomas.com 
https://lectureinprogress.com/journal/anna-thomas

Donations (0)

  • Chris Barber 
    • £25 
    • 7 d
  • Jono Attwood  
    • £25 
    • 2 mos
  • Thalissa Nuttall-Teixeira 
    • £20 
    • 2 mos
  • Michael van Kesteren 
    • £50 
    • 3 mos
  • Anonymous 
    • £50 
    • 5 mos

Organizer 

Leo Anna Banner Thomas 
Organizer
Twickenham, Greater London, United Kingdom
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