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OPINION: Annemarie Lewis Thomas – Bringing the Black Dog to heel

Annemarie-Lewis ThomasSaturday, 10 October 2015 was World Mental Health Day, with their hook for the year being ‘Dignity in Mental Health’. Facebook and Twitter were full of hashtags of people supporting the ‘day’ and indeed the ‘cause’.

It was with great pride that I read some statuses and posts from our students/ambassadors, eloquently writing about their own struggles, but also writing about how they were overcoming (or indeed had overcome) their difficulties.

If you’re a regular reader of my column, you will know that Mental Health is a subject that I feel particularly passionate about. The MTA has been built on a core value of looking after the complete well-being of our students, ambassador and staff, with a mental health specialist at the very centre of our faculty. I explained the theory in an earlyarticle.

Then in December 2014, I made my Christmas wish all about the same subject, and called on all drama colleges to look at our model and to make the seismic shift needed to address the difficulties in our industry.

Then, throughout this year, I’ve regularly dipped back into the subject to highlight the fact that not one college has taken us up on our invite to even discuss the model. How quick some course leaders/colleges were to publicly express an interest in exploring the issue with us via Twitter – yet not one of those ‘heartfelt’ tweets led to so much as a phone call.

So this year I provocatively tweeted that this issue was more than just an annual hashtag, something had to be done about the issue. For the first time, a couple of high profile tweeters came out in support of what we are trying to do, and then once again a representative from Equity’s Younger Members Committee jumped at me when I suggested that Equity should be doing more to enforce this thinking. They again told me (for about the fifth time now) that our industry, our students have BAPAM (British Association for Performing Arts Medicine). They said again that Equity can’t enforce a drama college to take care of its students. Drama UK long ago told me that they are also impotent in this matter, they can’t enforce one of their much lauded accredited colleges to have a Mental Health practitioner as part of their team.

A student at another college proudly pointed out that they had been told throughout their induction week that the college was there to help them, with the clear implication being that their particular college had ‘nailed’ the welfare of its students.

So that’s it then – job done? We’ve got BAPAM and colleges are saying that help is available. What more could I possibly be demanding from these colleges? Why am I still banging on about the Mental Health crisis in our industry?

If only it were that simple. The evidence is somewhat different, though. If it’s all sorted, why are we having staff at other colleges contacting us to find out if our counsellor can help them deal with a student in difficulty? Why am I having students from other colleges contacting us out of hours because they have nowhere else to turn, but they had heard that we actually have two members of staff on call 24/7 to support our students?

Why did Louise Granger state, back in January, that colleges had an obligation to address this issueif, at the end of the day, neither Equity nor Drama UK have the authority to enforce it?

Maybe a good starting point would be for Equity to start with educating its Younger Members Committee about mental health as, quite frankly, their defensive tweets, despairing with me for daring to suggest that our industry’s union should be doing more, are beginning to really hack me off.

The definition of a union is:“an organised association of workers in a trade, group of trades, or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests”. Did you get that Equity’s YMC reps…a union is formed to protect its members? I believe in the power of change via unions; I was raised in a household where one parent was a union rep, I lived through the 80s and saw the trade union movements slowly becoming powerless. As a college, The MTA insists that all of our graduates sign up to Equity. There is most definitely strength in numbers.

However, in answer to the interchangeable face of the YMC reps, I’ll state again – I am a great supporter of BAPAM, I think that it’s an amazing resource but if you’re in the middle of mental health crises you are potentially crippled.

One in four people will suffer from some form of mental health issue in their lifetime.

You might not recognise it, you might not feel up to going to your own GP, let alone an alien organisation in the middle of the West End. Are colleges training their staff to spot the signs? How many times have I heard people talking about performers/students in the most derogatory terms because of their behaviour/attitude, and yet how many people are stopping to think or indeed ask the more interesting question of what’s happening inside? Why is this attitude being projected?

Slowly people are beginning to talk about their difficulties in Mental Health, my inbox has a steady flow of people encouraging me to keep shouting about this subject as their colleges didn’t do a thing to help them when they hit a crisis.

More than that, their college and their counsellors just didn’t have the skill set to help them. In the last month alone, I’ve heard three horror stories of situations being dealt with dangerously, by unskilled ‘counsellors’ and faculties, none of whom had the level of expertise required to have dealt with the situations in question appropriately.

Ten months after the survey conducted by Equity, Spotlight, The Stage, and BAPAM, eight months after a conference where the great and the good put their heads together to come up with a plan…and not a thing has changed. Equity should be insisting that accredited colleges have a mental health practitioner as part of their faculty, and Drama UK should insist that their Old Boy’s Club is now taking Mental Health seriously.

The Stage should be campaigning furiously to force the situation to change. Has the boat already sailed though? Have we now moved onto ensuring good child care in the industry, so Mental Health takes a back seat for a while? Of course there’s room for more than one ‘campaign’, but why is this one, the one that has the potential to both ruin and steal people’s lives being kicked to the sidelines so quickly and so easily?

The survey at the beginning of the year acknowledged that our industry was running at slightly higher odds. Research papers are already out there naming a correlation between the performer and mental health issues. Look around your class, or your cast and hear what’s not being said, and question why your colleagues are acting in a certain way. Then imagine a Utopian industry, one that actually takes responsibility for the new people joining us. Keep running the stats from the January 2015 survey. Put a Mental Health specialist in every drama college, then sit back and reap the rewards.

Maybe it’s time for the powers-that-be to stand up from the round table and actually do something because, for every hour that you waste discussing your theories, there’s a performer in difficulty, and we’re not helping them, and our Union, the college regulators, and even to an extent our industry newspaper are inconsistent in this fight.

Regardless of your political views, the new Labour leader has just appointed a Minister to solely deal with Mental Health Issues. In one bold move, he’sactioned a change. If only our industry could do the same.

Annemarie Lewis Thomas is Principal of the Musical Theatre Academy

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