Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Theatre is hard...so let's look after our own shall we?

This time last year I wrote this: http://www.thereviewshub.com/blog-annemarie-lewis-thomas-support-each-other-in-2015/ I felt sure that it would generate some interest...maybe even a couple of enquiries.  In reality not ONE college got in touch to find out what I've been going on about.

To start at the very beginning...as we all know it's a very good place to start.  When I first started blogging for the then called Public Reviews site I wrote this blog: http://www.thepublicreviews.com/blog-annemarie-lewis-thomas-mental-health-education-starts-at-college/ which was all about The MTA's approach to mental health.  It generated quite a bit of interest at the time.  People started to email me telling me their horror stories of colleges dealing (albeit with good intentions no doubt) so badly with mental health issues.  If I heard one more time 'if only I'd trained with you'... not because of our course....but because of our pioneering pastoral health policy.

I blogged for nearly 2 years for that site, and would regularly revisit the issue of Mental Health in colleges.  Someone pointed out to me that I was at risk of creating digital 'wallpaper'...as I was just going on about it too much.  Too much?  Too much? I hear a horror story at least once a month of how appalling the so called 'mental health' policies are at some places.  I've heard how one well meaning staff member did something potentially so damaging to a person we're lucky that they're still here fighting to get well.  I get regularly get emails from people that I don't know, but know that we 'bang on' about Mental Health Awareness and therefore maybe...just maybe we could point them in the right direction of where to turn, as they are in real crises, and sometimes in real danger.  Just this week a major production company got in touch with us, as they needed some assistance on the subject of mental health and even they didn't know who to ask...and again remember me banging on about it, so got in touch with us to find a route through their dilemma with a cast member (incidentally how great is it that a company was attempting to help a cast member in difficulty, as opposed to simply replacing them - bravo to them?)

Before everyone tells me the same argument...yes we know that Equity supports BAPAM, and we know that BAPAM is an amazing organisation (and I truly mean that, having used their service myself in the past), but we're still missing the basic fact that if you're in the middle of a mental health crises it is likely to be really hard to physically turn up or indeed phone a BAPAM office, whereas it's a little easier to turn up or call your college's Mental Health consultant, that you've seen hanging around college regularly...or have heard stories about them from your peers.  Which is the less daunting?  Even better than that...what if your faculty had some mental health awareness themselves and had spotted your difficulties creeping up sooner, meaning that you were instructed to get some help BEFORE you reached a crises point? This is not a Christmas miracle that we're talking about...it's about every college having a mental health specialist at the heart of its faculty.  It's dead simple. At The MTA both staff, students and ambassadors (the name that we've given to our graduates) can freely access this person 24/7 365 days a year.  Our pioneering pastoral health policy puts the onus on us to spot the problem and to try and provide the solution.  As opposed to the more traditional book an appointment with the counsellor sort of approach that most institutions adhere too.

Now I'm not saying that we've got it right. Hell, I'm sure that we haven't...and I'm looking forward to the conference that we're hosting on March 15th https://www.facebook.com/events/911328365625354/ to listen to other approaches to see what we can all gleen from each other and from different approaches.  However I would say, that at least we're really trying to get somewhere with the Mental Health epidemic that is in our industry.

I have got into so many online fights this year about this topic...why are you telling me that your college provides a mental health service...if you yourself don't know anything about it, and more importantly having spoken to a number of your students...neither do they? Why tell me that your college told you that they were there to help you when you reached a difficulty during your induction week, when you've already forgotten the procedure by the time you needed that service, and that service is just with a counsellor NOT a mental health professional.  Much more importantly WHY the hell aren't you asking yourself can I do anything else to help my students...as opposed to taking the high road with what you think you're already providing.

I'm proud of the service that we provide, but I don't think that it's perfect... so I'm not saying 'hello we've got it right and everybody else is wrong' I'm shouting (and repeating myself) ' hello we're doing pastoral care a bit differently, it's bringing up surprising statistics....maybe this is an area that we ALL need to be looking at really carefully....how can we improve what we're doing?'

I've been around a fair while, in 20 years I've been around most colleges in one capacity or another. I've worked in the entertainment industry for  26 years...I'm 'going on' about this as I can see the situation getting worse.  We are losing colleagues far too young, because we didn't 'catch' them soon enough.  One young loss is one too many...yet thanks to FB even I can see that the numbers are much higher than 'one'.

Regularly I get ambassadors coming back saying that so and so in their cast could just do with seeing 'Angie' (the name of our mental health specialist)...as they clearly needed some help.  Our students have such an awareness of mental health because we 'go on about it' all the time.  You know why? Because I don't want the next young loss to be one of mine!  I know that it might be, I'm not naive....but I want to know that I did EVERYTHING possible to prevent it.  At the very least we've removed the stigma and shame of people suffering with Mental Health difficulties at the college.

You have to be so robust to survive in our industry, daily rejection, weeks/months even years out of work. It's not like 'real life' is it? My first years just did as their first show Robin Soans' A State Affair, where they were forced to explore issues such as drug abuse, sex abuse and rape.  You don't really run the risk of your past coming back to haunt you in that way if you sit behind a desk all day (unless your office environment is particularly cutting edge). Water cooler discussions tend 'not to go there'...but lots of good theatre not only 'goes there' but expects to take you with them.  I think that you get my point.

We are in a strange but wonderful industry. It's the ride of a lifetime...but it shouldn't be your only ride.  Please spare a thought this Christmas for people suffering with mental health issues...as it's a time known to make things feel worse.  The world can be happy...yet you can be so low.
Catching a Mental Health illness early on means that potentially you could make a great difference to the rest of a life.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if theatre, with all our eccentricities led the way in this field?

So my Christmas wish this year is simple...to all of you that are out there suffering from depression, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders etc, all of you that have contacted me to confirm my belief that we haven't got this right yet...please just retweet this blog...and then ask your college pastoral team to come to our conference. We already have confirmation from Equity YMC, The Stage and Spotlight that they'll be coming, and the pastoral lead from one other Drama UK college will be in attendance...so let's be getting the rest of you talking shall we?

If this is just 'digital wallpaper' then please print it off and use it...as actually none of us know who will be next . . . and you know what. . . it might even be you!
Merry Christmas one and all and a happy and HEALTHY(job filled) 2016



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