Britain is home to world class creative industries and talents. All of our lives are enriched by our culture, from blockbuster films, best-selling video games, independent music, and internationally-renowned museums and art collections, to theatre, opera, ballet, literary festivals and performance poetry. I have long argued for the arts to have the recognition and funding they need, not only because they brighten our lives, but also because they make a tangible contribution to our national economy.
Yet despite the glamour of Glyndebourne or Glastonbury, behind the scenes things can be tough, demanding, and challenging to good mental health. The realities of working in the arts, as a performer or one of the myriad supporting roles, are well understood to present challenges to wellbeing. Most performers have sporadic patterns of employment – sudden bursts of frenetic activity, followed by fallow periods filled with endless applications, auditions or second jobs. Performers lack job security, and cannot plan far ahead. They often work away from home, sometimes for months at a time.
Performers put their heart and soul into their art, and can be subject to highly personal attacks and criticism. The tone and language of reviews, or commentary on social media, can be bruising and severe. Everyone is a critic. All of this adds to the stress and anxiety suffered by people in the performing arts. This can extend beyond the traditional forms of ‘writers’ block’ or ‘stage fright’ and include severe mental illness. Risk of suicide is elevated in the performing arts: 69% higher for women than the average, and 20% higher for men. Those working in the music industry, for example, are three times more likely to experience depression.
There has been some progress in recent years. Industry bodies have come together to support people in the arts through ArtsMinds, which helps people access the right advice and support. This year, the Theatre Helpline was established to provide 24/7 confidential advice on everything from money worries to bullying. This follows a similar scheme, Help Musicians UK, formed in the music industry. The National Theatre provides confidential in-house counselling, and the Dominion Theatre hosts a free fortnightly event called Wellbeing for the Arts to empower actors to tackle stress and anxiety.
The role of the trade unions is essential here. Unions such as Equity, the Musicians’ Union, and the Writers’ Guild are vital in scrutinising employers in the performance arts, putting pressure on them to look after the people in their care, and to drive out bullying, harassment and exploitation. Conditions in the arts may be sub-standard for many, but without the unions, they would be a thousand times worse. This is a sector which sometimes sees sexual harassment, workplace bullying, and a constant demand to work for less money, or even for free. There are many cases where performers have to pay promoters to get on the stage, rather than the other way around. Unions are a vital bulwark against this kind of unfair practice.
There is more to be done. Today, I chaired a roundtable in Parliament with performance arts unions, and artists with a range of lived experiences of mental ill-health. We discussed how we can work together to drive out bad practice, and protect the mental health of everyone working in the arts. We need new protections and new rights to be established. We value our arts, and the contribution they make. We must value our artists too, and ensure no-one’s mental health is affected by outdated and exploitative practices.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree and president of the Labour Mental Health Campaign