(Image: Joe Attanasio)

The dark side of entertainment

It has been reported that Australians working in the entertainment industry have a suicide rate more than twice that of the general public.

The research, conducted by Entertainment Assist, reports that 44 per cent of performers in Australia live with moderate to severe anxiety. That’s a staggering 10 times higher than the general population.

As we’ve recently seen through the death of Swedish musician Tim Bergling, (known by his stage name as Avicii) the entertainment industry can have serious and sometimes even fatal impacts on one’s well-being, specifically for those struggling with their mental health.

Every industry comes with its own pressures and challenges. Some jobs are physically demanding, others require a remarkable amount of mental concentration, but in the entertainment industry it’s often a combination of the two.

With the industry’s goal at its core to captivate and inspire an audience, what is going wrong along the way that is leaving so many artists with unusually high rates of mental issues?

I interviewed three young performers working in Sydney’s entertainment scene to help shed some light on exactly what it’s like working as an entertainer and the pressures they may face.

Harley Page, 26

Harley has a Bachelor of Screen Arts from the Sydney College of the Arts (SCA). He previously interned for a production company based in Newcastle, worked in post-production at Channel 7 and now works as a production assistant at Channel Nine.

July 2018

Harley Page (Photo: Joe Attanasio)

What pressures have you faced in your career and day to day life?

“There’s been a lot of different pressures for me at various points in my career, which hasn’t spanned all that long. Working with directors and actors while I was interning was quite challenging. At the time we were producing a film for Tropfest and everyone took things quite seriously, which was great, however, I did feel like I had a lot of weight on my shoulders.

My job was to rewrite the screenplay, which was massive for me at the time. I wasn’t expecting to have that sort of responsibility as an intern. I felt that I did clash a little with the director who expected so much from me, and I was trying my best…he would call me at all hours of the night and make me redo a lot of the editing of the project.

I don’t mind a challenge and I’m not afraid to work hard, but I’ll admit, through most of that time I didn’t sleep… Now looking back, I do feel a little… taken advantage of, especially because I was doing it all for free.”

Would you say your experiences have affected your mental health? 

“I think it definitely did back then, being fresh out of university and really wanting to make a good impression I really said yes to everything, even when I didn’t feel quite right about it. Now at Nine, it’s a much more controlled and professional environment. I feel a lot of pressure daily, for example working on Love Island and having to get promos up within an hour… it does get the blood pumping. But I enjoy it a lot more here.”

Phoebe May, 23

July 2018

Phoebe May (Photo: Joe Attanasio)

Phoebe is an actress who has worked in dozens of stage performances and has had small roles in television and short films. She has recently moved from Melbourne to Sydney after being accepted into the National School of Dramatic Arts (NIDA).

What sorts of pressures have you faced in your career? 

“Well, to start, telling people I’m an actress can be challenging, I often feel people don’t take my passion seriously. Then, of course, auditioning for NIDA, four times unsuccessfully in a row… that really took its toll on me. At the time of my second audition, I had just lost my brother, I wasn’t in a good state, then getting the news I didn’t make it yet again… that really had an impact.

I’d say competing against so many people for a place at NIDA would be the biggest pressure I’ve faced so far, it’s just so cutthroat and there really is no room for mistakes. When I’m on stage, that’s when I’m able to come into my own, it’s not easy work, but it’s my life and I love it.”

Would you say your experiences have affected your mental health?

“For me certainly. After losing my brother and getting rejected from NIDA when I was just 17, it took me a while to gain my confidence back. I wasn’t really sleeping or eating and it was only when I started landing roles in plays that I started to feel like myself again.

Obviously, there are all kinds of pressures that come from those experiences as well, remembering lines, working with crews, getting feedback…I’ve seen both women and men cry when leaving a set. It’s not an easy career choice, not by any stretch.”

Sarah Davidson, 28

Sarah Davidson (Photo: Joe Attanasio)

Sarah is a comedian who has been living in New Zealand until earlier this year. She’s made the decision to leave the corporate world and pursue her passion full time.

Can you tell us a bit about the pressures you’ve faced since the career change?

“As a comedian, people expect you to always be “on”. As much as I’d like to think I’m hilarious it does get tiring living up to that expectation just about every day. It’s also tough trying to come up with fresh, relevant material for every gig, especially for highly critical audiences. Having to judge the audience’s reaction and then act in sync with that during a gig, that’s really challenging.”

How have your experiences affected your mental health, if at all?

“For sure. As a comedian, we just want to make people laugh, sometimes when I can’t get that to happen I feel a bit worthless. Often I’ll spend ages on a routine and it just doesn’t get laughs. It’s that sort of thing that keeps me up at night. Hearing other people getting bigger laughs than I did is really tough. Working at night. Making very little money. It’s really hard to just make ends meet sometimes, but you do what you love and hopefully, if just a few people out there love it too then that makes it worth it.”

Where do we go from here?

With the rates of anxiety and suicidal thoughts so much higher in the entertainment industry, there have been new calls from the community to show extra support to colleagues, friends and family members.

Mental health, just like any other disease takes a lot of patience and understanding to work through.

So, do we have a single reason for why entertainers experience such high levels of anxiety and depression? The short answer is no. It can’t be boiled down to just one point. However, according to research conducted by Victoria University, of the nearly 3000 musicians, directors, magicians, and other performers included in their survey, about 44 per cent reported suffering from sleep disorders. which is a known factor in mental health.

Another contributor is that novice entertainers typically aren’t paid well, if at all. About 35 per cent of those surveyed by Victoria University reported earning less than $20, 000 per year.

Speaking to Music Australlia, General Manager of Entertainment Assist Susan Cooper said the time is now to come together to resolve this issue.

“Mental health and wellbeing in the Australian entertainment industry is our shared responsibility. It is vital that individuals know how to support their colleagues and get support when they need it. We’ve identified the problem. It’s now time to work on the solution together,” she said.

If you or anyone you know are suffering from feelings of depression please contact Lifeline Australia.

– Joe Attanasio