Breaking the taboo: How do we navigate mental health in TV?

Mental ill-health in the TV sector is an unspoken reality for many working in the field. Finally, these issues are in the spotlight. The UK’s Film and TV Charity recently launched the industry-wide Looking Glass survey to get a snapshot of the well-being of TV workers. Ahead of findings being released next year, TBI can reveal that the proportion of people in the film and TV industries who have experienced mental ill-health is 86% compared to 66% in the general population. We gathered top mental health campaigners to discuss ideas for change. 

Why did you launch The Looking Glass survey, and what can you share about the results?

Alex Pumfrey, CEO, The Film and TV Charity: With the emergence of the Me Too movement, it triggered a need to understand what was going on and why we were creating these environments that seemed to do people real harm. We now have a responsibility to understand what people are saying and come up with impactful solutions. We ran the survey for three weeks and got nearly 9,000 responses

The proportion of people within the industry that have experienced mental ill-health is 86% compared to 66% in the general population. Around 9 out of 10 of everyone working in the industry has experienced mental ill-health, so this isn’t an issue at the margins – this is mainstream

More women responded than men, which is interesting because there tends to be more stigma around men talking about mental health. There is a divide between production versus sales, marketing, distribution and other elements, as well as differences within genres. For example, when you look at sports versus reality versus factual, you see differences there. However, the cultural trends that underpin it all are pretty consistent

Woodcut Media’s Kate Beal

Emma Loach, Commissioner (Documentaries), BBC: It’s indicative of how, for decades, we’ve been told what a privilege it is to work in the industry. The idea that you would complain or have any issues was so tramped down. So, as soon as someone asks the question, there is a freedom of, ‘Actually, yes, I have loads to say’

Davey Shields, Freelance/Founder, MenTalkHealth: As freelancers, you come into a production company and you are very separate, because you’re not full-time, you don’t have that connection to HR, or access to the same rights and benefits. With this survey, there are 9,000 people who are basically saying, ‘Now we have somewhere we can say this without fear of not getting work or being reprimanded’

Kate Beal, CEO, Woodcut Media: Thirty years ago, there was more of a training ground, and jobs were sustainable. They were jobs for life, and I’m not saying that was necessarily right or wrong, but the economy of TV has changed into this freelance economy where we’ve lost any kind of ability to nurture people through their careers

“This is going to be tough. When you say to people, ‘We have to do it differently’, you’re going to get all sorts of responses. There are bits of this that will feel very hard to change but it’s absolutely the right things to do and the right time to do it” Alex Pumfrey

AP (FTVC): There is also a narrative of toughness we peddle in our industry because of the freelance nature of it, and because you always have to have your game face on to find the next gig. There are those who are really optimistic about what we can fundamentally change, but there’s a hell of a lot of cynicism and people who say, ‘It’s just the way it is. It’s just the way it works. You’ve got to be really tough.’ That’s an interesting challenge

EL (BBC): Whilst we have a focus on mental health, a lot of people will still be attracted to resilience and a good game face. That’s what’s attractive to employers, because that’s the only way they’ve known to make a film

How does financial anxiety among freelancers and the lack of finances to support mental health fit into this discussion?

Rebecca Day, Founder, Film in Mind: In the independent sector, there is a lack of infrastructure and distribution of finance for doc makers, where you have producers and directors winning awards at Sundance but unable to pay their rent. You don’t feel that success in the way that you should because the finances don’t reflect the work you’re doing

DS (MenTalkHealth): One of the most startling things I experienced was a small company that wanted to hire me but couldn’t because they couldn’t afford for me to be sick. They said, ‘If you don’t do this job, we lose our money and the lights go off. We’re that small and independent’. There are companies that want to help, but we don’t have a system in place to allow them to take that risk

KB (Woodcut): You’re 100% correct. Because on a number of issues we have policies and good intentions, but if you’re scrambling to get something out the door, and haven’t got the budget you need, you can only see six months ahead and it’s hard to put any meaningful change in place

AP (FTVC): With the work we’re doing, we’re trying to get widespread industry buy-in, because ultimately our work is going to be about coming up with a programme of interventions and a fund that can offer this support for all those people who don’t have any in those sorts of employment situations

RD (Film in Mind): That’s really heartening to hear, because I’ve been stuck in that position for a while, where I am saying to my industry – the indie documentary community – that I can offer counselling, but no one has the money to pay for it. The ideal situation would be for me to have funding so I can distribute my services and filmmakers can access it

AP (FTVC): You can say there is a moral imperative to do better on these things, but there is a business case. The government’s mental health strategy shows that employers on average lose about £1,000 ($1,230) per employee a year due to poor mental health, and we are an industry of nearly 200,000 people, so it’s easy to say that we’re losing hundreds of millions of pounds because of poor mental health.

Financial anxiety is a real taboo. There are a lot of people we have heard from with awards to their name, who are about to default on their mortgage

How do we support one another in the industry? Davey, you’ve had a very positive experience with Banijay’s IWC – can you tell us about it?

DS (MenTalkHealth): I have worked in TV for 10 years. I was diagnosed with depression 15 years ago and now I have Borderline Personality Disorder. If things get really extreme and I’m running on empty for two weeks in a row, that’s when it becomes a real problem. I was working in Brighton on a busy production and I was good at looking after people. But one day, I reached my breaking point and had to take a step back.

“We have great initiatives around meeting green targets to win a commission. Part of a mental health remit can be having training for three people on the team to be Mental Health First Aiders during a certain project. That’s the way it can trickle down” Davey Shields

All my job offers had dried up after people heard about my breakdown and I was battling suicide, but IWC brought me in. I worked on a heavily formatted programme, Location, Location, Location. Three years later, I work as an AP and I don’t go on shoots, but I’ll work with a researcher ready to step up so there’s a benefit for the production company. I’m also the only Mental Health First Aider at IWC so I help them find solutions that might work for the production when someone is struggling. I have now trained seven APs who have gone on to do shooting on the show. It’s now down to getting the rest of the industry to do that so we don’t lose creative people

EL (BBC): With our commissioners, we ensure a package is there for the team, so if you’re working on something like Ambulance or Hospital, part of the editorial spec is to make sure there is something in place to look after people’s mental health and a phone number. The structure is in place

Has that process been updated recently?

EL (BBC): Yes. It’s been happening on an ad hoc basis ever since I was an exec producer, which is eight years ago. As an EP, I would always put things in place but recently it’s become part of the editorial spec, too

DS (MenTalkHealth): We need to do more of that. We have great initiatives around meeting green targets to win a commission. Part of a mental health remit can be having training for three people on the team to be Mental Health First Aiders during a certain project. That’s the way it can trickle down. Prodcos want to put these things in place, but because it’s all about costs, they don’t have that option

EL (BBC): The BBC has been talking to Channel 4 about exactly those things since spring. We’re hoping to do a pan-broadcaster initiative that will look at exactly that – what our responsibilities are and how we can work with the industry to prevent those cases when someone wants to look after the mental health of their team but can’t afford to

AP (FTVC): The analogy here would be health and safety. So, when you’ve commissioned something at Channel 4, for example, it goes through business affairs for all the checks on health and safety, which is all about physical health. Where it’s a legal requirement, it’s pretty good at being fulfilled, but just because mental health isn’t a legal requirement, it doesn’t mean it’s not as important

EL (BBC): Within the BBC, we have 900 Mental Health First Aiders now who wear certain colour lanyards and anyone can access them. Change is happening at the BBC but it’s how we effect change in the independent sector


Ideas for change

  • Whistleblower phone line
  • BBC/Channel 4-backed guidelines for indies
  • Mental health inclusion in health and safety checks
  • Training for Mental Health First Aiders
  • Breaking stereotypes of ‘production mum’, ‘creative genius’
  • Mandatory exit interviews for freelancers
  • Dedicated supervisors for freelancers
  • Open mental health discussions prompted by top execs

Film In Mind’s Rebecca Day

How close are you to formalising the initiative with Channel 4?

EL (BBC): We’re hoping to come up with guidelines that can ensure indies have Mental Health First Aiders, help managers spot mental health issues and train them up with coaching and counselling, etc. It’s things like making it a requirement on your first day to read guidelines with your line manager and tick you read them, and when you leave that job, read them again with your line manager and then have an exit interview

DS (MenTalkHealth): With a lot of these cases, there are systems in place but as freelancers, we don’t know about them because we’re in this bubble. But actually, there are lots of things we don’t seem to know about, so how do we change that?

How do we deal with sensitive subject matter and the mental health challenges that arise from those? Woodcut, for example, does a lot of true crime. How do you navigate that, Kate?

KB (Woodcut): Our true crime productions were more by accident and they have grown and grown and grown. Now, we’re in a situation where we’ve made 130-140 hours in the last few years. How we manage is that all the true crime team members – from editor to runner to series producer – have monthly check-in meetings. This has grown because we thought we really needed to look at this, because the true crime content focus was unplanned. TV is often like that: production companies will suddenly go on a journey down one type of programming

Have you had instances where people have had to leave because of the content?

KB: We’re very upfront in the interviews so people know what they’re getting into, but it comes up in the monthly one-to-ones. We have had instances where we’ve moved someone to another programme or into development for a sustained amount of time so they could then decide what they want to do. When they say, ‘I’m not coping with this subject matter’, we want to prevent them walking out the door

Who takes responsibility for freelancers, ultimately? Is there an inherent issue around reliability here?

AP (FTVC): That raises the question of what support there is for freelancers because they will move on and won’t work for you forever. If they are five years down the line and there’s an issue that arises, where can they go? For those cases, we are trying to think of what the bigger version of the support line might be. For example, if freelancers had a fantastic HR department, what would it look like?

RD (Film in Mind): Because it can’t always be the responsibility of people like Kate at Woodcut to pick it up, because your freelancer may not be with you anymore

AP (FTVC): There is a collective responsibility for the industry, because if we all need a freelance workforce, which we do, and those people flow between different shows and productions, then it’s incumbent upon the whole industry to support that freelance workforce

“For decades, we’ve been told what a privilege it is to work in the industry. The idea that you would complain or have any issues with working in the industry was so tramped down” Emma Loach

EL (BBC): It’s the uniqueness of freelancing, because if you’re staff as a researcher or AP, there is an awareness from your line manager that you’ve just done six months of a really heavy real crime series, so let’s put you in development for a couple of month and you can go home at 5pm every day. Whereas if you’re freelance, you go from one job to being home watching daytime telly, to another job that’s dealing with equally difficult content. So, thinking about what a freelancer’s HQ would look like is absolutely the question

RD (Film in Mind): That’s why I’m interested in developing some kind of supervision role for freelancers, where you check in with someone on a regular basis. The regularity of it helps because you don’t need to be in a heightened state of anxiety to have supervision

But how will you fund those roles?

RD (Film in Mind): Exactly

EL (BBC): Lots of fortunate people have mentors who can give them advice, but loads of people don’t have that, so it’s about codifying that

AP (FTVC): …And making sure it goes all the way up the tree

RD (Film in Mind): Yes, if we’re going to be honest about the hierarchy, it’s not just saying the people at the bottom need support, it’s all the way up to the top

KB (Woodcut): Within your own company or structure, because of the team nature of TV, there is always that person. The production manager does often become the mother figure

AP (FTVC): I’ve heard the term ‘production mum’ a few times and the sentiment of it is lovely but we do need to be mindful of where men fit into the picture, because there is a stigma around men talking about mental health

EL (BBC): I agree. There are also other stereotypes, which is that creative people behave badly sometimes because they’re ‘brilliant’ at their jobs. Both these things need to be really examined because we know from lots of people that you can be brilliantly creative and talented and behave well. And that’s a shock for all of us who’ve been in TV for 20 years because we thought if you behaved well, that probably meant you weren’t very good at your job

AP (FTVC): That mad creative genius trope, which is really pervasive. Like you, I instinctively resist the idea that you have to be slightly on the edge and behave badly to be brilliant at what you do

Is there enough calling out happening? You saw that with Time’s Up and Me Too in the US. Could mental health garner similar momentum here?

EL (BBC): I’m not sure it is happening enough. A lot of it happens to younger people in the industry who have no power within that situation to do anything about it. In my early 20s, we put up with lots of things and when Me Too happened, I started talking about them with younger women, and you realise nothing has changed. It’s the same with mental health. I don’t think we are calling out people enough about their behaviour

RD (Film in Mind): Especially when you’re very transient and moving from company to company, or working alone and you’re isolated

AP (FTVC): There is no meaningful recourse. Where is the jeopardy for people?

EL (BBC): Which is why we have ideas that we want to talk to you about, Alex. Perhaps there’s room for a Whistleblower line?

AP (FTVC): This is the nettle we have to try to grasp. When we launched the support line, the question I got asked everywhere was, ‘Is it a whistleblowing service?’ and I kept going ‘No it’s not because it doesn’t have a feedback loop’. Because you need to be able to go back to someone and pick it up with them or mediate it or take some action. Within a company, that’s something you can do, but within a freelance environment, it’s virtually impossible

RD (Film in Mind): That’s one of the dangers of the ‘production mum’ role – there’s no impartiality in that role. There’s an intimacy you don’t want in your supervision role

EL (BBC): It’s a real problem that needs real solutions because until all people across the industry can call out bad practice and effect change because of it, things won’t change

Alex, what’s your top priority to effect solutions going forward?

AP (FTVC): I’m not interested in us all agreeing a set of guidelines about how we behave – there has to be follow-through. We’ve done good work with Times Up but there are still issues there. This is going to be tough. When you say to people, ‘We have to do it differently’, you’re going to get all sorts of responses. This will feel very hard to change but it’s absolutely the right things to do and the right time to do it.

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