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Should the show go on?

How mental health affects the arts industry, and how to deal with it

Sydney Opera House

On a trip to the Riverina, Fay Jackson flew into Griffith Airport and was met by the Keith with a placard. After a while of convincing Keith who she was – she jokes that she was much slimmer than in the photos Keith saw – they drove across the sunset, sunswept Hay Plains. Driving, she mentions casually that she’s there to give a talk on mental health. “Could we do with you out here!” Keith jokes. “I tell ya, great load of freaks and lunatics we’ve got runnin’ around here. Complete spazzos and schizoids. We ought to just round them all up and kill them off like we used to do with the lepers.”

She pauses, lets the crowd laugh, and continues to recite Keith’s chat with her. “Well Fay, what are you – a psychiatrist?”

“Not a psychiatrist, Keith.”

“Oh, a psychologist?”

She makes an aside to the audience. “I was impressed, he knew there was a difference between the two.”

“Then what are you?” says Keith. Fay pauses. “Keith, I’m the nutter.” She describes Keith’s reaction – knuckles glinting white in the moonlight, body pressed against the side door with every hope of desperate escape. “And that man thought he could die out there that night,” she says.

Fay, bipolar, a former stand-up comedian and currently the Deputy Commissioner of NSW Mental Health, described a story that the artists, producers, stage managers, lighting technicians and marketers at this week’s summit know well. Titled How Can the Show Go On?, the day of keynotes, workshops and pro bono medical services was held by Theatre Network NSW as a response to 2016 research that revealed the high rates of mental illness and suicide for works in the Australian entertainment industry.

Entertainment Assist, the not-for-profit that spearheaded this research, opened the event with some sobering numbers: 25% of performing artists and roadies have attempted or considered suicide, but none of the crews sought help; over a third of performing artists, 25% of industry support workers and most roadies and crew reported mental health problems.

“People in the entertainment industry are suffering but they don’t know how or where to seek help,” said Susan Cooper, an actress, television producer and general manager of Entertainment Assist.

“We’re really good at hiding things. It’s ingrained in our industry,” she said. “And whether we’re in the front in the lights or if we’re [behind the scenes] wearing a black t-shirt, we’re absolutely passionate about what we do...it’s what drives us, it’s what we get up in the morning for.

The consensus was clear – as artists, screenwriters, and stage managers, arts industry professionals were moving more than numbers. The process of creativity was emotionally heavy.

“We are all the most passionate, creative, sensitive people in the most cutthroat industry there is. Naturally, there are going to be problems.”

Prior to her organisation’s research, Cooper and her colleagues saw that people knew the reality of mental illness in their industry, but had no stats to back it up. The report touches on other factors debilitating to a healthy life: 44% workers in performing arts production report not getting enough sleep. 57.9% have difficult finding time with their families, and 63% struggle to lead a fulfilling social life.

“We want to help each other, but we just don’t know how.”

"We are all the most passionate, creative, sensitive people in the most cutthroat industry there is."

As Fay Jackson took the stage, she reminded us that the numbers are grim but they aren’t the end. And sometimes the solutions were a simple human response. Her hands started shaking, so she called it out. “Most of this shake is a lithium tremor. And I’ve come to realise that having a sense of humour about my mental health issue is a really important part of staying alive.”

“I’ve come to see lithium as a friendly drug. Makes a good cup of tea, a good martini.” She makes a suggestive gesture that she said didn’t go well at an all boys’ school, and vowed never to do it again in front of a crowd.

“We need to be able to laugh about it.”

As a founder of the Big Crack Up Variety Night and the Mad Pride conference, Fay criticised the old belief that artists are just crazy people.

“If you’re a real artist then you’re going to be crazy, and that’s just how it is…the creative people that I know, and the people behind the scenes, are sensitive, generous people, and they’re people who really want to give.”

“[But] after you finish performing, the comedown is harsh.”

She referenced the recent allegations of sexual assault currently plaguing Hollywood. Fay made her message on addressing mental health issues in the arts industry clear: “We’ve always known about it. And you need to call it out.”

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