Five Australian entertainment industry professionals attempt suicide every week: The responsibilities of tertiary creative arts education

By Jenny Wilson with input from Susan Cooper (Entertainment Assist) and Professor Adrian Fisher (Victoria University)

‘Where’s the evidence?’ Entertainment Assist (EA) received a fairly typical pollie response when they raised the mental health problems present in the Australian entertainment industry. Yet as Susan Cooper, EA General Manager discovered, "apart from a couple of studies in the UK and US there was nothing - no whole-of-industry study on what was impacting in the industry not only for Australia but internationally".

The findings were shocking ... workers in the entertainment industry have double the suicide rate of the general population, and 10 times the rates of anxiety. Half of the industry suffer from moderate to severe anxiety.

So began a partnership with Victoria University researchers Dr Julie van den Eynde, Professor Adrian Fisher and Associate Professor Christopher Sonn, who conducted a detailed study into the mental health challenges across all levels of the entertainment industry from road crews to performers. In addition to interviews, the study included a survey of nearly 3000 participants. Professor Adrian Fisher, former Head of Psychology at Victoria University, explained: "One of the key factors was being able to move from the anecdotal to having a soundly researched evidence base to assist with a much better understanding of the issues, and as a starting point for planning interventions”.

Their world-first report, published at the end of 2016, provided the statistics that the government sought. "The findings were shocking", said Susan. "Workers in the entertainment industry have double the suicide rate of the general population, and 10 times the rates of anxiety. Half of the industry suffer from moderate to severe anxiety." In an industry characterised by "unsociable working hours" and financial instability, entertainment workers suffer greater rates of insomnia and sleep disorders, and suicide ideation. Suicide planning is far greater than the national norm, with five suicide attempts made every week. Adrian agreed: “These findings strongly suggest the entertainment and cultural industry is in severe distress.”

Tertiary arts educators play a critical role in the solution. Susan points out: "The majority of those working in the entertainment industry are educated in tertiary or TAFE settings - it is the common link and an obvious locus to start addressing problems. Added to this, the highest levels of anxiety are in the 19-24 age group."  Adrian agreed: “The connection with universities and formal training for performing artists is not always direct, but it is troubling. Across the research participants, we had people from many backgrounds and a very high proportion had tertiary education. While some are in performance and related areas of the entertainment industry (sound, lighting, scripting, etc), many came from other disciplines and areas of professional training that related to their work in the entertainment industry. For example, engineering and electronics trained professionals who moved into technological areas." 

The training of performers often entails them to explore their own emotions – and particularly to connect with significant events in their pasts in order to express the necessary emotions in their performance. The evidence we are getting is that this is not often a well-managed process.

He explains some of the real challenges related to the training of performers: “An important aspect is that performers live an emotions-bound work life and this spills over into other areas.  So, the training of performers often entails them to explore their own emotions – and particularly to connect with significant events in their pasts in order to express the necessary emotions in their performance. The evidence we are getting is that this is not often a well-managed process. They draw on the emotions, and then the class ends. No support or debrief. Where the events of the past have been particularly negative, this leads to students being left in very psychologically vulnerable positions and at serious risk. Such a situation needs to be managed far better than it mostly is now. Where the deep emotions are explored, there needs to be staff involved, and time given, so that proper debriefing is provided. This is also an area of skill development so that the students are taught strategies to deal with these challenges when they are working professionally in a less controlled environment."

A particular challenge of vicarious traumatisation arises for actors. Adrian explains: “The performers have to take on the role of someone who is in a traumatic situation or experience. Some actors have reported the amount of work and research they undertake in order to perform roles – soldier, police officer, doctor in emergency room, victim of crime, etc. For some, this research and role play begins to have many of the negative impacts on them of the actual event. So, even with the vicarious (secondary observation) exposure, there are still potential negative effects on the individual, especially were they become more and more immersed in the character they are portraying. Some producers (stage and screen) include sessions to aid their casts in dealing with these issues. Too many do not."

What can tertiary educators do?

We need a new wave of curriculum provision that assists to make entertainment industry professionals ‘match fit’ and able to face the challenges that they will face in their careers without destroying the passion and creative spark.

Adrian notes that while industry has a key role to play in creating a more supportive environment, with proper pay and conditions, recognition of the impacts of family life, and mental health as a component of OHS, "the position of universities and training institutions can be critical to work on a preventative level ... Drawing on work we do with psychology students and paramedics, a formal model of self-maintenance education could be one approach. This may reflect a unit where the students are guided through the demands of the industry, and helped to develop skills across the range of financial literacy (perhaps even contracts), health literacy, social engagement and support, and mental health". Susan agrees: “We need a new wave of curriculum provision that assists to make entertainment industry professionals ‘match fit’ and able to face the challenges that they will face in their careers without destroying the passion and creative spark."

In response to the report, EA established the Australian Alliance for Wellness in Entertainment (AAWE), which includes all key educational, industry and worker organisations, all intent on improving the health and wellbeing of the industry. Already EA has secured a recognition from government that there is a significant problem with the Parliamentary Report into Sustainability of Australian Film & Television Industry recommending that "the Minister for Small Business discuss mental health and other occupational health and safety issues with small businesses in Australia’s entertainment industry and consult on ways to address these concerns into the future".

In collaboration with mental health partner Everymind, AAWE is aiming to develop and action a Prevention First Framework for Mental Health in the Australian Entertainment Industry.

This is where NiTRO readers come in

EA is seeking input from industry professionals and educators on what mental health and wellbeing support is currently available, where the gaps are, and what are the most pressing priorities. This will be used to present a proposal for support to government.

The confidential survey is available at: https://www.research.net/r/VVRQG92

Findings will be available from Entertainment Assist’s web site: www.entertainmentassist.org.au