Mad March… the challenges for entertainers

Right now as we speak thousands of performers are participating in the Adelaide Fringe Festival and are facing the excitement and challenge of performing and showcasing their talents. Some are facing their first show ever at a festival and the possibility of a dream come true, while many are seasoned performers travelling the world or local and interstate artists facing their next season of performances.

While we are madly trying to work out what shows to circle in the guide or wander into on a whim, their minds are preoccupied with a myriad of challenges, challenges which performers in the entertainment industry are used to facing on a daily basis over the course of their career. These conditions simply intensify during a festival season but for them exist as a constant that is part of the deal for as long as they choose to stay in the industry.

Mental health? Get ready…. it is a roller coaster ride of highs and lows

All of these performers, no matter what level of experience are faced with similar challenges, but what is really needed to survive this unpredictable journey for a professional artist? Have you ever thought what impact this career has on a performer’s mental health?

If you or anyone you know has said to a performer or to a friend,

“How lucky are you to have that talent and do that for a living?”

“How much fun would that be to just sing every day?” or

“That was a great show, but do you have a real job?

An important message to audiences from performers

Take a moment to consider what it might be like to be the one on stage or directing the show you just saw and hearing that.

For the performers out there reading this, I suspect from my knowledge of working with many professional performers over many years, that any of these might be closer to the full reality of the festival season.

  1.  You are surviving on almost no sleep.
  2.  Your routine has changed to something that many would find gruelling and too uncertain to manage… extreme hours, odd meal times, limited contact with your loved ones
  3.  You have been panicking about the audience numbers or what your peers or one of the reviewers who might turn up might say about their performance
  4.  You are doing your best to not panic about the fact that one of the performers is very ill and may not be able to do the next show.
  5.  You are doing your best to give each audience your best, engaging your passion and self belief as much as you can and trying to not let the last bad review that flattened you get in the way.
  6.  You are struggling financially and worried about ticket sales and whether they will cover costs as a minimum
  7.  You are hoping it was good enough to ensure this festival season is both an artistic and financial success and you can afford to travel interstate or overseas to the next season you are planning
  8.  You are hoping that drink or the betablocker you took will calm you down enough to face the next performance

The real life of a performer. Is it really all fun and excitement?

You might also have an urge to tell them the broader story about the life of a performer and what the choice to follow their passion and this calling actually feels like at times when the highs have passed and the lights have gone down.

  1.  You remember all the weeks where you struggled to pay the rent and the disappointment when the application for a house loan was not approved with your partner as the income was too low and unstable.
  2.  You remember the level of anxiety and worry you experience about so many things – from the demands of performing, to auditions, to getting sleep, to financial pressure, to when the next job will come through, to relationship problems, to the sexism, racism or ageism you have encountered, to the part time job you need to keep and negotiate to be able to survive.
  3.  You remember the venue owner or client who wanted you to perform for free to get exposure or reduce your fees to something that made the hourly rate ridiculous.
  4.  You remember your instrument that was stolen after a great gig that you needed for a performance the next day or the day it died during the sound check after years of solid use and patrons falling over it drunk.
  5.  You remember the bad review that made that “I’m not good enough story” kick in again and the depression and anxiety return just when you thought you had kept it at bay for a while.
  6.  You remember the friends you have lost along the way or the relationships that broke down as you were simply not around enough due to long working hours.
  7.  You remember the times when drugs and alcohol felt like the only way out to numb the pain or to manage the anxiety.
  8.  You remember the funeral of a friend who was also an industry peer you went to last year who lost the battle with depression and anxiety.

Then you remember that despite all this, you don’t want to give up and you couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

This desire to create, to fulfill your passion and channel it is simply too powerful to ignore.

You come back full circle to your calling and you realise that making a different choice, although safer emotionally, financially and socially in so many ways, is simply not an option.

You know that the impact on your mental health would be even worse if you did this. You are also not sure who you would be anymore as so much of your identity is tied up with being a performer. So either way, the choice to continue or the choice to exit has mental health consequences.

So, yes as Tim Minuchin points out in this recent video made for the newly founded Arts Wellbeing Collective in Victoria

“ We are lucky to have this fun experience as performers but because of the lack of regularity, the highs and lows, because of the cultures of drinking and taking other substances and because, you know, the press and various pressures that may not be worse than digging in a coal mine but are different and psychologically potentially more damaging, I think we absolutely need to create this culture where we can say “I am not coping with this at all”.

The Show must go on, but at what cost to mental health?

As Tim Minchin points out the current culture of “The show must go on” in the Arts which will be explored in a revealing Australian documentary later this year doesn’t make much room for vulnerability, nor does it easily allow for acknowledging depression or severe anxiety and seeking help without potential consequences.

The latest research by Entertainment Assist and the College of Arts, Victoria University was world first research of a cross section of entertaimnent industry workers . This has shown us the extent to which entertainers are suffering, with alarming statistics in a range of domains. These are just a few statistics to give you a glimpse into the reality of the mental health of such workers.

• Alcohol use is reported to be between 11-19 standard drinks in one day and is consumed at double the rate compared to the general population intake

• Meth/amphetamine use is 8 times greater, ecstasy use is 7 times greater, cocaine use is 12 times greater, marijuana use is 4 times greater than the general population

• 20% of respondents indicated that they perceived themselves as addicted to some drug

• 44% of respondents suffered from levels of anxiety in the moderate-severe range compared to 3.7% in the general population

• 15.2% of respondents suffered from depression in the moderate-severe range compared to just 3% in the general population

• Suicidality is much higher with suicide attempts double the population average, suicide planning 4-5 times higher and suicidal ideation 5-7 times more than the general population.

Entertainment Assist and the Arts Wellbeing Collective are encouraging people to become involved to educate workplaces and to partner with industry professionals to provide appropriate support to ensure that the entertainment industry culture can transform to something that is much healthier. There is an acknowledgement of the resilience and psychological skills it takes to survive such a rollercoaster of a career that keeps on going with incredibly unpredictable twists and turns.

The time for change is now:

As a psychologist who has been working with many entertainers over many years, I support this initiative for encouraging tailored informed psychological support for performers and believe this change is long overdue. This professional support needs to take into account the particular stressors and challenges that people face in the entertainment industry.

It has been neglected for too long and this is leading to physical health problems , mental health conditions, sleep disorders, extreme drug and alcohol use, frightening levels of suicidality and a premature end to careers. We are watching people suffer unsupported and losing some of our best talent, people who have managed to sneak under the radar. It is simply not ok.

What do performers need to survive? How can we help them?

This recent research has given some important recommendations that we need to take action on. These suggestions are based on this new research in addition to my own experience as a clinical psychologist working with performers for 20 years.

• Performers need to harness their passion as their most valuable resource. In addition to this, patience, determination and vision are important characteristics for an enjoyable career and peak performance. Without it the balance between joy and discomfort gets out of kilter. As psychologists we teach performers to identify their values and use them as a motivation particularly at times when the discomfort feels too great to continue.

• Being willing to cope with incredible discomfort, insecurity, unpredictability, success and failure is critical for every performer. Psychologists may assist people to build resilience and learn tools to manage anxiety, sadness and frustration. They may also teach them how to recover from making mistakes and from knockbacks at auditions so they are able to move forward and keep thriving.

• Shifting the culture to one of awareness and acceptance of mental health issues allowing early identification of warning signs and intervention where seeking help is encouraged and accessible support is there with people who understand the particular demands of the industry.

• When it comes to the actual performance experience, it is a complex task requiring multiple technical and mental skills to achieve peak performance. Psychologists have a role in providing artists with the skills needed to harness anxiety rather than have it as their enemy. Beyond that performers are able to learn to have more enriching enjoyable performances that are memorable.

• Psychologists may assist in supporting performers to break patterns of drug and alcohol use that may be a way of coping with underlying depression or anxiety or coping with long hours and isolation from loved ones. Learning tools to address these habits and replacing them with healthier strategies may break this pattern successfully.

• We may also help performers learn better sleep hygiene to tackle sleep disorders and encourage them to reach out for social support when things get difficult.

• Reduction of suicide risk is a priority with early intervention critical and education about the warning signs and the need to seek help and alert others to ensure safety.

• Ensure that educators in the major institutions have a greater understanding of the need for psychological skills so that the curriculum can start to reflect this. The challenge is to shift the culture in those critical formative training years where we know anxiety is at a peak as competition is high to ensure the possibility of a career ahead.

Attuned Psychology has a strong commitment to working with performers and and has several psychologists skilled and interested in working with performers. Right now we are excited to be the resource for performing artists and other staff at the Fringe and are available for those who are struggling with performance issues, mental health concerns, or a sense of isolation.

We look forward to supporting the people that we all rely on to ensure Adelaide comes alive in February and March and all of those performers we come across throughout the year.

Alexandra Frost is available during the Fringe for emergency appointments or phone calls to ensure that performers are supported throughout this time.

Find out more about our support for Performers here

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