The Spotlight Podcast: Mental Health Support for Actors

This episode of the Spotlight podcast is about mental health and wellbeing support for performers. 

We speak to Addam Merali-Younger* about help and resources available for performers who may need mental health or wellbeing support. 

24 minute listen.

*At the time of recording, Addam was Equity's Bullying, Harassment and Mental Health Assistant. 

Contact Details for Support

Please know you're not alone and there's someone to help you. If you are looking for support, here are some contacts for you to reach out to:

Samaritans

Equity's Bullying and Harassment Helpline

Mind

Useful Links

Credits

  • Producer and host: Christina Care
  • Production: Nicholas Peel
  • Guest: Addam Merali-Younger

Episode Transcript

Christina: Hello and welcome to this episode of the Spotlight podcast. My name is Christina Care. I work at Spotlight and on today's episode we are talking all things mental health with Adam Riley Younger who is the bullying harassment and mental health assistant at Equity. Adam tells us lots of different information and resources, all of which will be in the show notes and it is mental health awareness week. So please keep an eye out on our website we'll have lots of great resources and information and advice for you there. For now, take a listen.

Christina: Thank you Addam for joining us on the Spotlight podcast today. I wanted to start by asking you about your role at Equity because it's quite a new role. Can you tell us what you do?

Addam: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, it is relatively new. I've been in post since January 2018. My role is the support for bullying, harassment and mental health. So when people are experiencing any of those issues, and often that can be in a combination as well, we offer a confidential helpline, both over the phone and on email and I'm at the end of that helpline to give people that initial support and signposting. And I also do a monthly face to face option as well in London at The Actor Centre. Again, we recognise that there are a lot of issues within the sector and a lot of people going through them on their own and not necessarily knowing where to go to. So whilst it's not necessarily a counselling service or a mental health service, it's that step in between, so when you're facing that daunting task of 'where do I start' and addressing any of those issues that I mentioned before and there's someone there to support you, to listen to you and to get you that initial information.

Christina: Yes that first step.

Addam: Exactly.

Christina: So can you tell us a bit about how this got set up? Was it in response to anything? Why did this sort of idea all come about?

Addam: Yeah, working for a trade union, we're sort of led by our members. And actually what's fantastic with this role is it's something that was created by our members back in 2017. We have an Annual Representatives Conference and a motion is put forward to say, recognising all of the work that my colleagues do in supporting anyone who's going through any of those issues. But also saying, "Well, why don't we bring someone in with kind of that background and that expertise to increase what we can offer to our members and to those in the sector as part of the process of improving it?" So that sort of happened before a lot of the big scandals with Weinstein and Spacey. But then as things often take time my role didn't officially start until after that, so we'd had a little bit of the groundwork in place already, but before I started.

Christina: Yeah. And can you tell us a little bit about your background? Like what's your interest in well being and mental health?

Addam: When I finished uni, I accidentally ended up in the charity sector and sort of fast forward eight, nine years, I realised I was getting involved in a lot of workplace wellbeing forums and decided then that actually I wanted to move into the mental health world. So prior to joining Equity, I spent two and a half years at Samaritans working there on their staff team and it's somewhere where I still volunteer. So that sort of built on my interest and my knowledge and experience in the mental health world.

Christina: I want to ask you, how do you actually sort of learn to deal with people ringing you up with such vast problems and different sorts of problems? Did you kind of undertake some training? Are you qualified in another way in terms of mental health or was it really about supporting people in a sort of more direct way?

Addam: Yeah, it is more about supporting people. I am a trained mental health first aider but again, that's not something that is designed to offer ongoing support. We make sure that we manage people's expectations from the start, that it's not a counselling service that there's a step to it where people can access. Because there is a lot out there that is just not very well promoted or people don't know about, so that's there. In terms of sort of the managing it, it's amazing the Samaritans training actually there are a lot of elements there that I sort of lean on because at Samaritans, you can't take anything home with you it's completely confidential. The same with the phone line. So you learn about how you debrief, how you talk things through. So I'd find the sort of the way that works in the work environment and apply it in that way.

Christina: Yeah. It's such an incredible thing, I think, where I'd like to sort of start with this is the fact that we're making this podcast as a result of mental health awareness week. We want to help our actors as well to get the help that they want. But I think often people just don't ask for help because either they don't know where to get it or they don't realise that actually it's an issue and it's not just an issue that they have, but that lots of people deal with and it affects so many people doesn't it? What kind of people do you tend to hear from? Obviously they're members of Equity, but just to get a sense, is there a particular age range or a particular kind of person would you say?

Addam: It's a complete range across all factors. We represent people in a variety of industries within the performance and creative sphere. And there are people contacting us from all of those, across all ages. I think what happened sort of early on when we were... One of the things that I provide that listening service, but then also an opportunity to discuss with people what their options are going forward. And in the early stage is actually a lot of those people would call and they'd talk things through and they wouldn't want to discuss their options. They just simply said, "I just needed to get that out there." And that comes back to what you said is people not knowing that there is an outlet or they didn't feel there was an outlet there before.

Christina: Yeah, it's a really tough one. I think in an industry like this one, so much of it is about... and even when we talk to professionals on the creative side who are actually creating the work for people, so much of it is about, you as an actor need to present yourself. You need to always be on your game and you kind of always need to present a certain like upbeat attitude, passion and vibrancy and all this sort of stuff. And I think that's really hard for people if they realise that they're struggling because they've got those two things kind of fighting against each other. I wanted to ask you, you also link to ArtsMinds and we were involved in creating ArtsMinds. Is that a good sort of first resource for a lot of people in this industry or where do you tend to start with people ringing you up?

Addam: Again, varies so much so there's almost not a formula to follow.

Christina: Right.

Addam: It's sort of listening through in terms of the issues that they present. Some of them will be signposted internally within Equity so that there may well be an industrialist view and then one of my colleagues will pick up. Some of them will be signposted externally and that will use a lot of the sites and resources that are on ArtsMind. But I like to make sure there's not too many steps for people, they may well have taken quite a big step in the first place in getting in contact.

Christina: Yeah of course.

Addam: So I'll keep those resources that are on ArtsMinds in a separate list. I also have other organisations that I know they work specifically within the sector or work within specific areas such as debt or eating disorders. So depending on what people come to me with and if I don't have that initial information on my signposting list, I have the job to be able to support people. So I can spend some time doing a little bit of research into that. But the ArtsMinds exists because that means that all of those signposts that are there, which you might get through the phone and if people aren't at that point where they feel enabled to call up, they can go on there and they can see the resources and they can see the links through. And that might be that first step for them to take in calling the helpline.

Christina: Yeah, for sure. I know you've just said it's obviously a confidential line, but can you give us a sense of the kinds of problems who've come to you, you've sort of mentioned a few there. What's the sort of gamut of problems that people are dealing with that they could come to you for?

Addam: Yeah, so we mentioned that the start and it covers quite a broad range of bullying, harassment and mental health, which is huge and it covers across all of that. So people finding or dealing with mental health issues and the impact that it's having on their ability to work. But then also talking to people who are having experiences where people are being sexually inappropriate to them at work or they have been victims of sexual or physical or even emotional abuse. Which in turn has an impact on their mental health and naturally their ability to perform and to work as well. So yeah, it covers such a huge range. In my first year in post, I dealt with over 700 contacts and with each of them there's a different sort of way of responding to that.

Christina: I wanted to kind of dig into that a little bit more because I know that stigma is obviously a huge issue around actually asking for help and taking that first step. And I think there is a statistic actually on the ArtsMinds site that I kind of wanted to talk about and it was that we initially interviewed, surveyed sorry, 5,000 people about what they needed in terms of mental health. And about 1200 respondents who said that they had quite a severe mental health issue or they dealt with something of a severe nature. However, 85% of them had still worked in the last six months. If people come to you concerned about whether or not they will be able to work, is that something that you were able to advise them in terms of moving through mental health issues?

Addam: I mean, we want to show to people that there is that essence that they aren't on their own. If they're able to address those issues at whatever stage we are able to address them earlier on, that means they can prevent things from getting worse to the state where they might feel unable to work. But we work alongside for example, another one of the organisations at partners behind ArtsMinds is BAPAM, British Association for Performing Arts Medicine. And they work with a lot of mental health specialists who have got specific connections and knowledge of working within our field as well. So that means if they need that ongoing support as they can get in contact through them, there are also other counsellors and psychotherapists and other options available within the set who have that connection to the sector who can provide that ongoing support. So we can sort of again give people that initial outlet and then if they feel that they need that ongoing support to enable them to continue working, or to get them through a particularly difficult patch. 

Christina: Would you encourage people to try to contact sooner rather than later?

Addam: A lot of the work that I do is responsive, but even just coming down through the Spotlight hallway earlier I saw the 'Creating Safe Spaces' posters. Yeah we're trying to sort of build-up that knowledge of good mental health and what that means again on an individual level. I have had people contact me saying they've heard this word wellbeing but they don't really know what it means and they want to find out about it because they think it's a good thing. And you know, there were groups and things cropping up like talk or wellbeing for the arts or Western meditation for example, which focus less on the reactive side as in things have got this bad and I need help. And actually thinking, well actually you do some meditation, do some mindfulness or just go and have a chat with people, with your peers and you'll realise that hopefully, that'll help. And also when you're kind of engaging and seeing other people in the room there that you're not alone.

Christina: Yeah. It's about getting together with your community in a way, isn't it?

Addam: Exactly.

Christina: Do you have any other sort of foundations of good mental health? Are there certain things that you tend to advise?

Addam: It kind of comes up on quite an individual level. I like to be able to talk through. So the other person sort of is making those decisions rather than anything, talking about what brings them pleasure, some people it might be swimming or going for a walk or reading a book and it's kind of keeping those things up and finding the right balance. Because often within, when we're talking about mental health, the big challenges can be similar to this industry there can be big highs and there can be big lows.

Christina: Yeah for sure.

Addam: What we want to do is sort of acknowledge that you know what, we're always going to have highs and lows, but if you can sort of make those waves a little bit smaller so it's going less to an extreme. If you notice something dipping down a bit, take a step back and just think, okay, actually what do I need to do, I'm going to go and get a tube to Hampstead or to Richmond or something and walk around. It's doing those things so that it doesn't get to as low a point when men kind of it could end up creating kind of more issues.

Christina: A problem. Yeah, totally. We definitely put a lot of advice on our site in that vein that you know, acting is such a varied and unpredictable job and there will be periods where you won't be working and there'll be other periods you're doing amazing work and it's super-exciting and it's just having things to fill those gaps and keep a kind of more steady routine to your life I suppose.

Addam: Yeah.

Christina: Yeah. You mentioned there in terms of noticing things getting low. Do you give advice ever about sort of noticing other people around you who maybe might be suffering? Are there kind of warning signs that you could talk to us about?

Addam: Yeah, I mean it's quite a big thing actually. We have as part of our 'Safe Spaces' campaign, we have an affirmation which talks about there not being bystanders. And that doesn't just mean bullying and mental health. It's calling in our way where there are things that maybe are affecting people's mental health. But again, it's difficult in some ways because you might have a different group of colleagues from one week to the next. So you might think, "Well, is that person always withdrawn?" And that might be their regular personality and other things. But I think the thing is we're getting to the stage where it's not a taboo to talk about mental health and wellbeing. And if you have a concern about someone, don't keep it to yourself. Some people can become very quiet and introverted, some people can go to the other end of the scale and end up being very loud and you know just almost putting the mask on things.

Christina: There's no one way is there to really demonstrate that you've got a concern or that something's going on?

Addam: Yeah. In the same way that there's no one way of solving a mental health issue, it's got to be down to the individual. There's also no one way that any one individual and you know for people listening to this, you might be on the tube or you might be walking down the street and you can look around, think well majority of people will have some issue going on within their life and how they react to that and how they deal with it will all be different.

Christina: Yeah, for sure. So it's kind of about knowing yourself and then knowing what is out there if you did need help.

Addam: Exactly.

Christina: You mentioned the affirmation there are a couple of times. Obviously the other part of what you do is answering concerns to do with bullying and harassment. What sorts of things do people tend to call you about on that front? Can it be very small things or can it be big things? What can they call you about?

Addam: Yeah, I mean, what I always tend to do and I always tend to take the approach, is that if someone's feeling that's an issue, then that's their reality. That's what they're going through. So I don't want people to sort of minimise it and I think a lot of people will call and say, "Oh, I didn't know whether I should call or I've got this little thing." And then they explain it to you and you think, I'm not going to say my judgement on the situation, but it's quite a lot more than that. With things like bullying and harassment in the workplace, with harassment in particular which deals with anyone being treated in a bad way, that is down to kind of the protected characteristics and equality law. It's illegal and people shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.

Addam: And sometimes people hide under the fact that some people will just think, "I've only got a week or two weeks more on this contract and I'll put up with it." But in any other workplace we shouldn't say we shouldn't in this workplace as well. And with bullying as well, which is dealing with things outside of the protected characteristics, you'd expect a good workplace to have policies and procedures in place and would want to protect the individuals that are working there. Whether they're working there for two weeks or two years or two decades. Because they have a responsibility we need them to kind of step up to that.

Christina: And perhaps that's where the difficulty and the benefit of having the affirmation sort of comes in because often if you are working on a job say for two weeks, how thoroughly have you made a policy on something like that? You might not have one. Can you explain a little bit about the benefit of the affirmation or what the intention is there?

Addam: Yeah, absolutely. So as part of the 'Safe Spaces' campaign, we want to encourage people to read that affirmation at the beginning of any rehearsal period workshop project. Basically the beginning of anything because we want people to know that they are protected. We have the posters which have been sent out to the stage door of every theatre across the country as well, which have got the contact number and the contact email address on. We want people to know that we've got their back basically.

Christina: Yeah.

Addam: There are lots of other people within that room who probably have got their back, but other than them putting up their own posters this is a case of saying, Well actually if this has been read out, this is a responsibility now. And it's not just one person's responsibility it's a responsibility of everyone there, in that building, to stand up when things don't seem right or when people are behaving inappropriately to call things out to support the people who are around them as well. So yeah, that idea is like taking the name of the 'Safe Spaces' campaign is the last line of the affirmation is simply together we can create a safe space. And that sort of sums it up.

Christina: Yeah. It involves everyone and everyone becomes responsible.

Addam: Exactly.

Christina: So it's kind of preventative as well as being inclusive and making sure everyone understands that it's everyone's role.

Addam: Yeah.

Christina: I really like the affirmation. I think it's a lovely idea by the way. I'm coming towards the end of my questions and I wanted to ask you if people are still concerned or having an issue, they can just call you up. Can they call you up if they're not a member of Equity?

Addam: They can, but in terms of the support that's available to them, it's more limited. But I may well be able to signpost them on an initial level to BAPAM or to one of the charities. But in terms of anything sort of internally or industrial then yeah, that does limit what we're able to do.

Christina: Right. So it's really important and helpful to have an Equity membership?

Addam: Absolutely yeah. I mean there are other organisations out there, there are things like the theatre helpline, music minds matter helpline, film and TV charity has a helpline. I'm usually able on a quick call to be able to make sure that people are going to be able to access that support. There's one of me, there's maybe 60 or so Equity staff members and it's all of our responsibility within the sector to play a role in if you want to call it righting the wrongs of what's happened in the past. But also looking into the future and saying, okay, well we've got an opportunity now and we can make this sector even better than it already is. We can make those improvements and make it a safe place to work in. So yeah, it's a sort of way that we just want to make sure that we're still involved and everybody whatever their membership status might be.

Christina: Of course. Thank you so much Addam. I want to kind of finish asking you if anyone is struggling or looking for some help, what should they do?

Addam: Yeah, I'd encourage people if they feel able to get in contact is to contact me. Email is [email protected] I do run a monthly drop-in at the Actors Centre and information on those is on both the Equity and the Actors Centre websites. And I believe I will be back in Spotlight doing the next mini Open House in June [2018] as well. I'm running a face to face drop-in session across a few days during that week. So there are lots of options there. If you don't feel in a position to be able to reach out to someone, I'd really encourage you to go on the ArtsMinds website as well as the resources. There are stories there taken from across different media to highlight the range of issues that people in the sector are dealing with on a day to day basis and hopefully that will show that you're not alone and you know that might be that first step into getting in contact in the future.

Christina: Absolutely. Thank you so much Addam.

Addam: Thank you.

Christina: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Spotlight podcast. In case you did want to use any of the resources that Addam mentioned, you can look on ArtsMinds.co.uk or drop an email at [email protected] If you're really in need now and you can't wait any longer, please present yourself to your local A&E or give the Samaritans a call on 116123.