Leadership / 06.02.22
Lifesaving Resources and Conversation, Part 1: Mental Health and Suicide Prevention for the Entertainment Industry
Editor’s note: May was Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, but the issues and concerns in our business transcend all dates, boundaries and time zones. In a two-part series based on our recent INTIX with IATSE webinar, we are sharing important resources that can help you to help yourself, your staff, your co-workers and your colleagues. As said in our webinar invitation, INTIX wants this information to reach and help the live entertainment professionals who may need it most. The conversation, tools and resources in this series may save a life.
The sudden death of country artist Naomi Judd at the end of April 2022 shook and saddened the entertainment world. It also once again raised awareness of mental illness and the struggle that, for many, is too great to bear. At the beginning of May, Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, her family confirmed that the 76-year-old singer had used a firearm to take her life on the eve of being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame after a prolonged battle with depression.
In the United States, someone dies by suicide every 12.3 minutes according to statistics shared during a recent INTIX with IATSE webinar presentation (watch the on-demand recording and/or access slides and resources from the webinar). Those working in the entertainment industry — regardless of whether they are a box office star or a box office professional — are especially vulnerable. Researchers who analyzed suicide deaths among workers by occupational groups reported that those in the arts, design, entertainment, sports and media businesses have the third-highest rate of suicide.
“The numbers are true,” Hannah D’Amico, an international education representative and trainer for IATSE, the union which represents theatrical stage employees as well as moving picture technicians, artists and others across North America, says. “This is something that definitely impacts our industry and something that we need to stay on top of and think about.”
In an effort to do just that, IATSE partnered with the Behind the Scenes Foundation, INTIX and other organizations and individuals to launch a mental health and suicide prevention initiative for the entertainment industry. It is particularly timely given the stress many of those working in the industry have faced over the past two years.
The pandemic has worsened mental illness in this country, D’Amico told webinar attendees. “The only silver lining to that is, I believe the pandemic really has allowed us to talk about mental health because so many people have experienced such [dramatic] changes in a short period of time.”
During the INTIX with IATSE webinar, Lori Rubinstein, Executive Director, Behind the Scenes Foundation, echoed that we are in a difficult time right now. “People were without work for a long time. People who are used to providing a good living for themselves or their families and maybe have not been able to, so it has been extremely stressful. There's a lot of guilt going on. There's a lot of anxiety about getting back to work.”
There is Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training available that “teaches you how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse.” Here are the links to U.S. MHFA Training and Canada MHFA Training resources on the Behind the Scenes website. Ultimately, it is important to know the warning signs.
“A lot of them [warning signs] are really obvious,” Rubinstein says. “Someone is openly talking about wanting to do self-harm. Maybe you come across them on the computer and you see they're searching for things. Referring to others being better off without them … [One really important one] is if someone has seemed really depressed, really anxious etc., and then, all of a sudden, they seem very much at peace. They seem almost happy. Find out what is going on because it can mean that they have made the decision to take their own life and they are at peace with that, so any kind of sudden change like that. Another important one is [noticing someone] wrapping up loose ends. If you encounter someone who is giving away things, their possessions, their tools, whatever it may be, and they are not moving, they are not changing careers, they are not retiring. Start asking some questions.”
Because so many of us now use social media to express ourselves and our feelings, Rubinstein suggested we take special note of any changes we see in someone’s online habits, postings or persona.
“If you are used to communicating with someone, let's say through text or reading their posts on Facebook or Twitter, whatever it might be, look for what seems to you like changes in how they are thinking or feeling. Are they posting at a different time of day? Are they using different language than they have in the past? That can all be signs that something is going on with that person.”
If you are concerned about someone, Rubinstein suggests you take the following five steps:
- Be there.
- Keep them safe.
- Help them connect.
- Follow up.
You can download a #BeThe1To poster or wallet card and a one-sheet entitled Know the Warning Signs which you can post everywhere you can, such as breakrooms, notice boards and anywhere else safety information is posted. There are also one-sheets for anxiety, depression and substance use as well as one entitled “It’s OK to Not Be OK.” These helpful resources can be posted or handed out to help raise awareness and start conversations.
Of course, it is not always the other person who may have an issue with mental health. It could be ourselves. With that in mind, Rubinstein talked about some of the resources that are available through the mental health initiative, including an Anonymous Behavioral Health Self-Assessment Screening tool.
“We have just come through the pandemic … Everyone is feeling things that they might not have felt before or to a stronger degree than you felt before,” Rubinstein says. “Getting back to work can be extremely stressful, extremely challenging. So, we have made [resources] available ... When you go to the site, there are a number of different assessments you can take, and you can take as many as you want. These are completely anonymous. No one knows who takes them. No one knows how you rate. If you think, ‘Oh, maybe I'm feeling depressed or anxious,’ you can take one focused on that. There's also a widespread screening that will help you sort of narrow [things] down. One of the things we’ve found that's a big benefit is that just by taking these, it can help give you a vocabulary for maybe what's bothering you. It can help you speak about it in a little bit more detailed manner and that can be really helpful. Whether you're talking to a friend or you're talking to a therapist, it just gives you the words you need to help describe what you're feeling.”
Rubinstein says, “There will be a few basic demographic questions, nothing that specifically identifies you, but just to help us understand who is taking [the screenings]. Then you will see, for example, in the anxiety screen, very, very simple questions. Are you feeling restless or keyed up? Do you get tired easily? And once you respond to those, [the screening tool] is going to let you know how you are doing. It is either going to say, ‘Hey, you're doing pretty well,’ or it might say, ‘It looks like maybe you are dealing with generalized anxiety’ and it will give you some really good basic information about what that is, what that means; then it will lead you to some [additional] resources.”
An industry survey in 2019 revealed that many in the entertainment sector found it difficult to find a therapist who ‘understands my world.’ Many respondents “expressed frustration with therapists who consistently made suggestions that were unrealistic given the long working hours and employment challenges” that so many in this business face. The Entertainment Industry Therapist Finder is the result.
Rubinstein says it “allows you to have the confidence to know that when you see someone, they already understand the industry. And really, we have two kinds of therapists in there. Those who have already had clients who were in the industry, so in effect they have been educated by those clients, or those who previously worked in our industry, and we have come to learn that the mental health field is a very popular second career for people in our industry. So, you can have that confidence that you do not have to spend your first few sessions educating the therapist.”
Another finding in the above-mentioned survey concerned the prevalence of bullying, harassment and intimidation in the industry. In response, Behind the Scenes launched a multi-part prevention campaign.
According to Rubinstein, it is important to understand first what words and what actions can cause harm. “A lot of times you may not be aware that what you are saying or what you are doing can cause harm. It is important to have that in your mind, to know how someone might interpret what you’re saying and what you are doing.
You can download posters and brochures on this subject as well as a sample employer policy statement from Behind the Scenes.
Additionally, people who feel they are targets of bullying can access a variety of resources from btshelp.org/stopbullying. Bystanders to bullying can also find answers to questions such as, “How can I safely intervene?” and “What steps can I take to try and protect someone without putting myself at risk?” in a downloadable PDF.
Rubinstein says there are four key premises when it comes to dealing with this problem.
- Be informed. Understand what constitutes bullying, harassment, intervention and intimidation.
- Be aware. Notice what is happening in your surroundings and what is going on around you.
- Show support. Support people who are impacted and if you see something, say something.
- Take action. Assess the safety of the situation then use the best methods to help diffuse the immediate situation.
Each of these premises are discussed is greater detail in the “Stop Bullying” brochure, which you can download here.
One other thing that Rubinstein highly recommends is a robust organizational policy. Recognizing that smaller employers may not have a big human resources department, a sample employer bullying, harassment and intimidation policy is provided as both Word and PDF documents.
Although the month of May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, clearly this is an important topic for any and every month, week or day of the year. Rubinstein suggests it be introduced in some way during any company event or meeting. “All that means is we would love to introduce language about mental health, about psychologically safe and respectful workplaces into your already set up talks,” she says. “It can be [just] a couple of sentences, but it helps make a difference. It lets people you are speaking to know that their mental health is important and that they can speak up if they have issues.”
If you need to get permission from “higher ups” or feel the need to convince your employer about the importance to talk about mental health and psychological safety in the workplace, you can find some ideas on how to do that in the Behind the Scenes Toolbox Talks section. You will also find tips on how to actually talk about what many consider to be a very tough topic. There are even some short pre-written scripts that you can use as they are or modify to suit your own workplace and/or voice when delivering them.
Whether you are seeking help for yourself or for others, we hope you will explore the many tools and resources that are available as part of this initiative. If you are interested in skills development, please read the accompanying INTIX with IATSE webinar article on Mental Health First Aid, linked here, or find out more about specific training programs in the United States or Canada.
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Tags: Leadership , Mental Health , IATSE , Behind the Scenes Foundation