Equity global study finds those working in the performing arts are more likely to experience poor mental health

We have today (12 May) published a global scoping review of 111 academic studies related to mental health and wellbeing in students and professionals within the performing arts. This landmark study was commissioned by Equity. It’s launched alongside a new Mental Health Charter at a panel event to mark Mental Health Awareness Week.

What’s a scoping review? A scoping review is a type of research that aims to map the existing literature on a particular topic or research area and identify key concepts; gaps in the research; and types and sources of evidence to inform practice, policymaking, and research.

The review by Dr Lucie Clements found a clear trend for increased mental health concerns across the performing arts, although findings regarding the prevalence of mental health concern vary greatly.

  • Two academic papers showed depression to be twice as likely in performers than the general population - one in actors (Maxwell et al., 2015) and one in ballet dancers (Ravaldi et al., 2003).
  • Six percent of individuals are thought to be experiencing anxiety in any given week (McManus et al., 2016). In comparison, data for reporting anxiety symptoms includes 24% in dancers, 32% in opera singers (Thomson & Jaque, 2016b), 52% in acting students (Searl et al., 2019) 60% in actors (Brodsky, 2001), 90% of rock musicians (Raeburn, 1987).
  • 54% of musical theatre students report a level of depression or anxiety that met the rate for diagnosis of mental disorder (Curtis, 2019).

The review identified a range of contributing factors:

  • A culture of unstable work, antisocial working hours, time away from home, and financial fears were the most discussed causes of stress and mental health concern in performing artists.
  • Many studies cited job precarity, including erratic and short employment, low pay, work over and underload, and time away from loved ones as having a significant impact.
  • Studies also identified that negative relationships with others in positions of power in the workplace, who were undemanding, unsupportive or authoritarian also created stress.
  • Many papers argued that education providers rarely provide sufficient support and students are predominantly underprepared in education for how to look after their psychological wellbeing once in the industry.
  • This is exacerbated by a lack of industry regulation of working conditions and mental health.

Another stark finding is that there is currently no research explicitly exploring mental health in relation to ethnically diverse performers, disabled performers, and social class.

In response to this study, our new Mental Health Charter has five key demands to improve mental health across the performing arts industry by bringing about deep-rooted structural reform. This includes producers and engagers addressing the harmful impacts of precarious work by improving pay and work-life balance, and adopting relevant safeguards in the workplace, such as mental health risk assessments, safe spaces policies and consultation on organisational change.

Equity General Secretary Paul W Fleming says:

“This landmark study confirms in concrete terms what Equity members have known for years – those working in the entertainment and performing arts industries are more likely to experience poor mental health. There are a range of contributing factors, but it is abundantly clear that the harmful impacts of precarious work, low pay and poor working conditions are fuelling this collective crisis.

“Equity’s new Mental Health Charter puts the responsibility back on the bosses who control the creative industries. They show that our demands for improvements in pay, condition and access to the industry aren’t just about our members’ material wellbeing, but their mental health too.”

Alice Brockway, Director of Playing Sane and Equity Member says:

“Equity’s new Mental Health Charter places its demands squarely on government, education providers, producers and engagers and, aligned with current collective bargaining aims, makes it clear that decent pay, safe, secure, inclusive work are vital for maintaining positive mental health and wellbeing. These demands are non-negotiable, as are the rights of Equity members, and all workers, to live with freedom from economic and social instability.”

About the research and launch

The research written by Dr Lucie Clements commenced on 21 January 2022 and was completed on 05 April 2022. Read the full report.

The research and charter was launched at a panel event chaired by Actor, writer, and well-being coach Abiola Ogunbiyi. Speakers include Dr. Lucie Clements and Juliette Burton, Comedian and Ambassador for Rethink Mental Health Illness. More information about the event.

The World Health Organization (2004) defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes their own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

In 2015, ArtsMinds, in collaboration with The Stage, Equity and Spotlight found that 46% of performing artists self-reported poor or average mental health. One in five of the 5,000 survey respondents was seeking help for their mental health.

The review identified a number of other factors related to mental health in the performing arts sectors. This includes:

  • Exposure to regular performance can exacerbate stress. This may stem from others’ opinions as well as from competition with and comparison to clothes.
  • Expectations to portray a range of emotions on stage may contribute to poor mental health (Pecen et al., 2018).
  • Actors are chronically exposed to topics such as suicide, grief, murder, and rape, which they are likely to take home after work (Burgoyne et al., 1999: Robb et al., 2018). The same may also be cause for concern in comedians (Hargrave, 2020).
  • COVID-19 and the associated changes in work, negative impact on finances and loss of performance opportunities have also impacted on mental health.

Mental Health Charter

Our new Mental Health Charter includes the following five demands:

  1. Producers and engagers must address the harmful impacts of precarious work by improving pay and improving work-life balance. This is central for enabling good mental health and maintaining healthy, safe workplaces.
  2. Producers and engagers must adopt relevant safeguards in the workplace, such as mental health risk assessments, safe spaces policies and consultation on organisational change. Equal attention should be paid to the mental health needs of all performers and creative workers.
  3. Producers and engagers must not exclude historically marginalized groups, such as ethnically diverse and LGBTQIA+ communities, from policies and practices designed for promoting safe, inclusive workplaces. These workers face multiplier effects of low pay, precarious work and discrimination upon their mental health and their welfare and rights should be championed.
  4. Education providers must ensure that every young person undertaking education or training is inspired to expect dignity and respect in work. Young workers preparing to enter the industry should be encouraged to reject any form of abusive or discriminatory behaviour, and understand that doing so is intrinsic to maintaining good mental health.
  5. The Government must invest in our mental health services to reverse a decade of underfunding and reform the outdated Mental Health Act.

In response to this study, Equity has announced that it will continue to fund access to counselling services for its members through its longstanding relationship with the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM).