Tuesday, 17 March 2020

The Mental Health Epidemic within the Pandemic

Last night the unthinkable happened. Theatre in the UK closed its doors. Frustratingly for theatres and producers this came about via a carefully worded recommendation to our audiences as opposed to a directive to them, thereby potentially preventing companies from having a valid insurance claim. Making companies and individuals even more vulnerable than they were already feeling.

I can't be the only one that never thought that we'd see such a day in the UK (or indeed around the world), but here it is and an entire industry is left reeling as each individual tries to work out 'what now?'

Of course we all knew that it was coming. Broadway closed last week so it's been a waiting game since then. The big difference of course is that our American colleagues earn substantially more money than the jobbing actor/techie in the UK. There is more chance that they've saved up for the inevitable rainy day scenario. That said some people just don't have it in them to save regardless of income, so this isn't guaranteed, however the potential to save is there. I don't think that the majority of the UK industry (on and off stage) have this dilemma. We all live in a somewhat hand to mouth environment, and have long since consoled ourselves with the fact that our souls are full even if our bank accounts aren't. The majority of our industry need the next wage packet, which is why you see people closing in a successful show on the Saturday, going to work in their 'crap job' or 'muggle job' by the Monday. In a way it's kept us all grounded for years, it's hard to get 'up yourself' when you know that you'll be back in civvy street within a few weeks.

So suddenly an entire industry faces a very uncertain future. We all go online to tell the world how frightened we are, and we feel the need to let everybody know what our struggle is. Some of us will be resolute, telling our friends that we'll get through this, as after all, a life without hope is no life at all. However now that people have been prevented from going out, the online chatter is at breaking point. Suddenly we're all experts in what the government 'should' have done, we've all understood the logistical variations of this mystery 'virus', we've all researched what every other country has done, and we've all worked out what the solution 'should' have been. More than that, we feel the need to tell everybody about our own discoveries.  Of course the fact of the matter is that none of us have a clue. We're all scared (for ourselves, our loved ones, our industry, even humanity), and are all simply 'acting out' that fear in the only space that's left for us to roam - social media.

We see a 'cure' or a 'prevention' tweet and it becomes our civil duty to share it amongst our friends and followers, as we all attempt to save the world. Of course that's all we've shared is 'fake news', or rather 'fake hope', as hope is the only thing that we have.

I've long blogged about the mental health crises in our industry, and I've always maintained that the industry hasn't created these illnesses, but rather our industry attracts people who are more susceptible to mental illness, as it provides all of us with an altered reality. We can all pretend to live in a different world for a while. A show (ironically given the pressures around doing one), is almost a mental health break. So what now for an entire industry that revels in living in the 'other' now that it's suddenly been catapulted into the here and now, and what's more, the here and now is even more unstable than our industry. To add to the issue nobody amongst us has immunity. For sure there are the wealthy amongst us that can ride this out, but they are few and far between. From graduates to jobbing performers/techies everybody has had the rug pulled from out of them.

People with anxiety who are already trying to make sense of the world have suddenly lost their anchor, people with depression that can see no good in the world can get that view confirmed within seconds on social media, people with OCD desperately trying to control their environment as it is suddenly find themselves in a world that can't control itself. And so the list goes on. The one thing that we can be sure about is that every mental illness will be made worse by this pandemic.  People can no longer run to the theatre to escape their own 'minds'.

So I guess that this is the perfect opportunity to hit these conditions head on. How many people that deliberately keep themselves busy in order not to think have suddenly found themselves in self isolation? As an aside isn't it weird how something like 'self isolation' which sounds like something straight out of a B movie has suddenly become part of our every day language? Anyway I digress.

There are lots of therapies available online - why not check out what's on offer? https://www.england.nhs.uk/mental-health/adults/iapt/ Whilst the NHS is struggling right now there is still free help out there. See the enforced downtime as an opportunity to 'reset' and 'reboot'. How many of you have kept putting it off because you've allegedly been too busy? Well you ain't busy now - get proactive about your mental health.

Limit your online surfing - it'll either make you more worried, more angry, or bizarrely make you feel more isolated. Even in self isolation it's possible to live more in the 'real world'. FaceTime and Skype your friends. I went to pop a post up on one of The MTA groups the other day, and instead opted for a livestream as I was aware that a number of my graduates were either stuck in far away places or stuck in self isolation in the UK. So potentially even 'seeing' and 'hearing' my post was more reassuring than some written thing.  I mean I clearly could have made it worse for some of them, but they had the option to turn me off (and I'm confident that at various times over the years they've yearned to do that - so it was a win/win)

Somehow this will pass, and somehow we will all get through it.
Our industry has an amazing sense of community, and right now we need that community more than ever. As you're checking on your friends to see if they have a cough and a fever, maybe check on how their mental health is doing too? I've long believed that mental illness is at epidemic levels within our industry, and I suspect that the physical pandemic will make those levels raise even higher. Now is a time for actioning help, not living in denial it's a great #time4change

24/7 Equity mental health and well-being helpline: 0800 917 6470

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