An Actor's Story: Understanding Mental Illness
An anonymous actor opens up about his experience supporting those with mental illness
As part of our series for Mental Health Awareness Week, we spoke to two actors about their personal experience with mental health concerns, and the psychological impact of being an actor. Here is the first in the series.
Part One: “Tom”
I started suffering and I didn’t understand why I felt really down, and just wanted to cry the whole time. You don’t take your own advice, you say, ‘I’m fine’. I’ve always been brilliant at helping others but when it’s about yourself, you don’t think the same.
Mental health issues were present in my family with depression and anxiety. My brother set up the Samaritans in the rural town I’m from. My other brother was suffering from anxiety, though we don’t know that exactly because he wouldn’t get help. He committed suicide 3 years ago and he wouldn’t ever take medication. About a year ago I had to move back home, as my sister was suffering very badly. Her symptoms were that of depression and anxiety, and she wasn’t able to go to work without me being there. She suddenly had this irrational fear of a job she’d been doing for 7 years. I convinced her to get help, and now she’s on medication, and she thanked me so much for making her realise.
The problem with being an actor is you’re so high and low. You are on a buzz, and it’s amazing when you get great reviews. Then things don’t go your way and you have to get the motivation yourself to keep getting out of bed, and get auditions, and it’s just tough. About a few months ago I started suffering and I didn’t understand why I felt really down, and just wanted to cry the whole time. You don’t take your own advice, you say, ‘I’m fine’. I’ve always been brilliant at helping others but when it’s about yourself, you don’t think the same. I realised I’d been unfair to some people before when they’d been suffering because I couldn’t understand. I thought, ‘Just be positive!’ I’m all about positive thinking and positive reinforcement. What I’ve suffered from is nothing in comparison to others. You get an insight into what it must be like to feel like that the whole time.
Accessing Emotions and Utilising Expression
In my family it’s a genetic thing, and an upbringing thing. Where I’m from, it’s all about ‘everything’s perfect.’ It’s all a front, [that] everything’s fine. Which is so unhealthy, it’s shocking. I wasn’t in touch with my emotions when I was younger, and I was brought up to not raise my voice. Being like that isn’t sustainable. I often find I end up tense and tight. I’m not letting the anger or the disappointment out. It worked for a time, this happy happy happy, and I didn’t know any different. It seems great but it’s not real.
I’d never done any acting before I did a weekend course. I was crying and shouting, and it felt like this weight had been lifted. I expressed myself and let something out. We did exercises in drama school, telling us to ‘get angry’. I’d just end up in floods of tears and it unlocked something. Which is why acting is so therapeutic. I know many of my friends who are suffering - they’re absolutely brilliant actors! They’re expressing themselves in ways they haven’t been able to in their real lives. You just have to be careful and have the support there for you on the other side. There was so much emphasis on being vulnerable. It made me a more genuine person by not putting on this front. It’s ok not to be ok.
The Harsh Realities of the Profession
The year after drama school, I had parents who thought I was an idiot for doing what I was doing, and didn’t want me to be acting. Friends from back in the day just thought I was wasting time. Friends from drama school did understand, but you want to put on a [positive] front to them. Everyone on social media wants to say they’re doing amazingly well, and that just makes it worse.
The year after drama school can be the biggest lull of your life. I’ve never had that lull, because I’ve always been doing a degree, working or focusing, and the light at the end of the tunnel was moving to London and becoming an actor.
There’s the issue of needing to supplement your income but also needing to be flexible for auditions. That pressure isn’t good for your mental health either because you’re balancing all these things. You need to have a to do list so that you can see the pro-active things you’ve done each day. Right now, 15 months out of drama school, I feel like I haven’t done anything yet. How have I not made it yet?
So, when you start losing faith in yourself and it doesn’t happen as quickly as you expect it to, it gets you down. You think you’ve failed. You have no one to talk to, no one understands. Can I call myself an actor if I haven’t worked in a few months?
Understanding the Stigma
I still witness that stigma [around mental illness.] My other job is within the medical profession. I see people who are on anti-depressants… When it comes to you, you don’t think you need it. When it comes to you, you don’t tell people. It is an illness, just like diabetes or Crohn’s disease is an illness, and we don’t say that you shouldn’t have pills for that. Being an actor can make mental illness worse, as you line yourself up for rejection. You question yourself so much, and then you don’t believe in yourself, and you wonder what you’re doing.
When I wasn’t experiencing mental health issues myself, I wasn’t helpful to others going through it. I wasn’t going through stuff at the time. During the circle of trust exercises in drama school, I felt very much that ‘you don’t talk about negative things.’ I would have been guilty of rolling my eyes in my head at people talking about their mental health problems. No one’s going to understand until they’ve been through it though.
At the request of the interviewees, names have been changed. If you’re struggling with any mental health issues, ArtsMinds has lots of suggestions of someone to talk to - and check out this resource. For more personal accounts of actors’ experiences with mental health concerns, take a look at these stories.
If you need urgent help, there are lots of ways to get help now.