Why are so many people in the entertainment industry struggling with mental health and what can be done to better prepare them for its rocky path?
These are the questions highlighted in a new documentary, The Show Must Go On, by actor-turned-filmmaker Ben Steel.
Steel, 43, is best known for his three seasons as Jude Lawson on Home & Away from 2000 – 2002. But after his role was axed he struggled to cope with the spotlight switched off. Feelings of depression may not be unique to those in entertainment, but as his documentary details, they are exacerbated through the volatility of the industry.
Entertainment Assist and Victoria University paints a dark picture. Anxiety symptoms are 10
times higher; sleep disorders are 7 times higher and symptoms of depression are 5 times higher
than the national average. Suicide attempts in the industry are also double the national average. According to Steel, for roadies, suicide is 9 times the average.
“It becomes an accumulation of pressures”
“In entertainment you might be touring around in regional theatres, not making that much money. So you have financial pressure and you’re away from family and friends,” he tells TV Tonight.
“It becomes an accumulation of pressures, which may be more unique in the entertainment industry.
“It’s not just the screen industry, but performance, music, dance, opera, crew and casts, and people in administration.
“Oil rig workers are traditionally well paid and potentially more long term. In a lot of industries you can progress up the ranks. But in entertainment you’re only as good as you last show.”
The Show Must Go On features interviews with Sam Neill, Michala Banas, Shane Jacobson, director Jocelyn Moorhouse, dancer David McAllister, X Factor graduate Dean Ray, comedian (and Block contestant) Andy Saunders and more.
It isn’t just the fluctuating nature of employment that affects mental health, but often what is required of artists.
“One of the fundamental differences in this industry is you are dealing with vulnerability, sensitivity, emotion, raw energy and creativity. To do our jobs we have to delve into that and put ourselves out there,” says Steel.
“It’s not just the performers. Everyone puts themselves on the line.
“In most other fields you leave your emotions at home.”
“We are constantly breaking up with people.”
Entertainment work often entails intense but brief periods where artists are required to bond quickly in collaboration, before parting company and head in different directions, only to do it all again.
“We are constantly breaking up with people. You go into another job and it’s the same thing all over again, or in some cases you go from ‘family’ to ‘family’ like a foster-care kid. There are other freelance-based industries that are probably similar,” he continues.
Showbiz is also highly judgmental, now exacerbated by social media. Casting decisions are based not just on skills but necessarily on physical attributes.
“There’s nothing we can do around the inherent discrimination of acting. Your looks do matter. Your age, height, body mass, race do matter. While there are exceptions, if a casting director is casting a family, they’ve got to look a little bit like each other,” Steel concedes.
“But if you were to go for any other job in any other industry and it was acknowledged that you didn’t get it because you didn’t look a certain way, you would have cause to take them to court.”
Steel’s documentary was a labour of love, taking 3 years to complete. During that time he also lost a close colleague and friend, which together with the subject matter, weighed heavily on his own mental health. At his lowest, Steel himself admits having suicidal thoughts. But Steel then turned the camera on himself and to those closest to him.
“They did their best like any other parents. “
“My parents didn’t know that I was struggling. I was pretty tight-lipped like a lot of people. I guess I am trying to encourage people not to do that,” he observes.
“Support is what you need for your recovery. It was certainly what I needed.
“Since I was a kid my parents did nothing but support and encourage my passion and my dreams. They were worried, at times, about my not getting work and struggling.
“They did their best like any other parents. ”
He also includes an interview with husband Stano, who he says supported him through the film’s production.
“It was important having my husband in the film because he was the one who initiated me getting help and observed me struggling, particularly in the making of the film,” he explains.
“Sexuality can certainly be a stress point, an additional struggle for people. At this point in my life it wasn’t. Sexuality is not a big deal to me or the people in my circle, friends or family. It’s just part of who I am.
“Gay suicide is very big but in my case it wasn’t a contributing factor.”
If there’s any benefit to the unique rollercoaster of entertainment employment it’s that artists become expert at job interviews.
“You know your strengths and weaknesses. When you’re in the real world getting another job to support your creative pursuits, you pretty much get every job you go for. So that’s a positive!”
Meanwhile Steel is hoping his documentary will be seen in the education sector where performers and crew are being trained. He feels better equipped to cope with the demands of the industry and to separate work from life.
“Now I’m quite clear about who I am and where I’m going.”
“Now I’m quite clear about who I am and where I’m going. I really had to have an identity crisis, and that’s not unique to the entertainment industry,” he says.
“Sam Neill says you have to make it not be all about what you do. Entertainment is part of what I do. But it’s not who I am.”
The Show Must Go On airs 9:30pm Tuesday on ABC.