For all its perceived glam and excitement, the film industry is a fickle beast fed on a project-by-project, job-by-job basis. And while the creativity and camaraderie can be an infectious high when a production is in full swing, when the final wrap is called, many of those involved, both in front of and behind the scenes, are left facing an uncertain future, either waiting for the next gig to come along, or being forced into a different arena altogether.
But while the casual observer might just write this cultural idiosyncrasy off as ‘nature of the beast’, the resulting damage incurred from the stress, competitiveness, and pressures of the industry are all too real for the tens of thousands working in Australia’s film and television industry. A 2016 study on working in the Entertainment Industry, conducted by Victoria University and Entertainment Assist, revealed double rates of suicidal ideation and five time higher depression symptoms compared the rest of the workforce.
And all this before COVID-19 began wreaking havoc, not just on productions, but also on the already stressed mental health of those actively participating in the entertainment communities themselves. In a survey conducted last November by Screen Well, a series of wellbeing webinars supported by Screen Australia, 73% of participants indicated that they believed the awareness showcase would help them better navigate their work life more effectively.
One of the driving forces behind the Screen Well initiative is actor and activist Ben Steel, the writer and producer behind the ward-winning documentary The Show Must Go On, an autobiographical film that dissects Ben’s own struggles with mental health from within the context of the entertainment industry and its project-based culture. However, it’s Ben’s latest initiative, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) For The Screen Sector, conceived as a follow up to the Screen Well webinars, that is currently gaining momentum as a vital support mechanism for the creative community.
“I started making the documentary in 2016, which came out in 2019,” explains Ben about where the idea for MHFA originated. “I guess that it was a catalyst to what I’m doing now, to a certain degree. It was initially going to be a record of my struggles, and of my starting to heal. And I started talking to my colleagues and began realising that other people were struggling. So, I just picked up a camera and started shooting. It kind of led me on this journey of wellbeing in the arts and entertainment sector.
“So, after the film came out, I wanted to still stay active in that space beyond just creating awareness. I was looking for something that I could do pro-actively, rather than just share my story. That’s where I came across mental health first aid training. So, I went off and became an accredited instructor.
“The reason I think that’s so important, particularly for the screen industry, which is where I’m focusing on, is that there are a lot of things happening in mental health on the live performance side of things, like the Theatre and Opera and also in the music industries. But there isn’t really any well-established program in the screen industry.
“So, a big part of it was pretty much me going ‘Oh my god! That’s my part of the industry, so I gotta step up and do as much as I can.’”
At its core, Mental Health First Aid For The Screen Sector is a program that looks to train individuals within the industry, be they crew, producers, talent or support staff, much the same way one would obtain their First Aid certificate. The goal of the program is to help trained individuals on set recognising developing mental health problems, identify someone struggling or at risk from a deepening mental health crisis, and offer treatments and assistance learned from an evidence-based training program. In essence, making each set a more nurturing, secure and inclusive environment.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, and one that is set to effectively change the industry’s culture. However, while systemic change is usually a catalyst for pushback, it seems that the MHFA initiative is something many have been namelessly advocating for, with 82% of the Screen Well participants wanting the training made available.
“The awareness around what’s needed in the screen sector came from a program that I did last year in lockdown which was called ‘Screen Well’. The excess data that came from that as far as what people needed; Mental Health First Aid was one of the things they were crying out for – basic access to getting accredited and trained up,” reiterates Steel, musing on the challenges of identifying and implementing the training necessary to navigate an elusively diverse ailment such as mental health.
“Mental Health First Aid is very similar to physical first aid. Physical first aid doesn’t teach you to be a doctor of any sort,” he explains “You’re just like a first responder, if somebody has a physical condition or needs a little bit of help and you know how to help them.
“It’s similar with mental health first aid. They don’t train you to be a counsellor or psychologist, but it teaches you enough so that you are more aware of some of the common conditions and how to initiate and have those private conversations with people.
“Basically, talking about this stuff, particularly in a workplace or with colleagues, has had certain challenges that people won’t feel comfortable with. So, it’s about trying to figure out a way that you can have those conversations and they’ll know that it’s not about them losing their job or any of that kind of negative stuff. But that it’s more that you are just worried about them and want to check in and see if everything is okay. And do they need help.
“It’s very much just teaching people how to engage in that, rather than turning them into counsellors. There are very few people trained in this. The goal here is to just have more people that are skilled in having these conversations.”
Though when the subject of having a dedicated Mental Health Officer on set comes up, the former Water Rats/Home & Away/Winners & Losers actor understands that over-reaching in ambition regarding Mental Health management can be highly detrimental to those it’s designed to help.
“I’m not necessarily talking about having a dedicated wellbeing person on every set. Where that’s their only job and everyone knows that’s their job and they have to be careful whenever anybody is having a conversation with them. We don’t want a situation where people go ‘Ooh, something’s going on with them’ or ‘They’re talking to that person’.
“I think there will be a place potentially for that role once it’s much more normalised, but originating it as a sole person’s job currently in the screen sector, I think, would be detrimental.
“But I do think once these conversations have become quite commonplace and normal, then maybe in the future, in a world where helping the production team through pre-production to helping everybody on both the cast and crew that engages through the production, and even following up after. I can see this going forward.
“But I think just going from any extreme where we don’t have anything of the kind and then jumping straight to that level, will be counter-intuitive.”
Off the back of RU OK Day on September 9, Steel has announced a wave of five new course dates offering free Mental Health First Aid training for the screen sector. Fully funded through Screen Australia’s Industry Partnerships program, the courses are set to commence September 19 with 60 screen practitioners already subscribed and ready to undertake training. With such a high demand, the challenge faced by Steel and his team looks to be funding, with the demand currently outweighing the financial resources.
“These five workshops are funded from Screen Australia,” says Steel. “I have been reaching out to quite a number of different places, from government screen agencies to industry stakeholders in order to find a way that we can have this course offered every month for the foreseeable future. Just to try and get as many people as we can trained. And particularly on the freelance side of the industry.
“Some of the big broadcasters and other media companies, they have aspects of infrastructure in place where there is a fulltime staff member or some of the people within their organisation that may have had training.
“But there is still a lot of gaps we need to try and fill and have as many people as we can learn these MHFA strategies.”
To register your interest in attending the next wave of Mental Health First Aid course, visit https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSexM5JdpIAdUkPW9e8_FPfTvFaivm2y7pelgvLzRL80FyCCkA/viewform
Or visit https://www.theshowmustgoon.com.au/ for more information.
Those struggling with mental health can visit www.beyondblue.org.au or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 to speak with someone.