Wellbeing in the Arts founder Adam Bambrough: ‘Many in theatre consider anxiety a normal part of their day’.
After battling depression himself, actor Adam Bambrough is seeking to tackle rising rates of mental illness in the arts industries, starting from within organisations. He tells Lyn Gardner why he has set up Wellbeing in the Arts to give something back.
When Adam Bambrough was working as an actor, he found that being on stage was excellent therapy for his depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. “It took me away from myself,” he recalls, “but as soon as I came off stage, the feelings would return, and I’d have a sinking feeling in my stomach.”
Gradually, even auditioning became difficult. “There were lots of times when I was up for good projects where I’d get to the door of the room, and it was like facing a brick wall. I’d put my hand on the doorknob and I couldn’t open it and I would walk away.” He lost lots of opportunities, but when he did manage to get inside the room and get the job, he never felt he could tell his employers about his mental health issues. Even when he was struggling.
“I became very good at masking it. It scared me knowing that my opportunities for work would decrease if my mental health issues were known in the industry. Why would you employ somebody with a mental health issue when there is so much competition for every role?”
But what is the industry losing by failing to recognise the widespread mental health issues within all areas of the industry? Last year, Equity discontinued its mental health helpline citing lack of uptake from members. Though this came at a time of growing evidence that the pandemic had increased the already high levels of mental-health issues experienced by those working in theatre. Bambrough hopes that he might have one solution with Wellbeing in the Arts, his new not-for-profit initiative that launches this month with the aim of providing mental health and well-being support for arts organisations.
Wellbeing in the Arts aims to become a platform for arts workers to speak about their mental health, and will include panel discussions and podcasts, as well as offering a range of free online resources, workshops, training and advice to raise awareness within organisations. That is important, Bambrough argues, because poor workplace cultures are often among the root causes of poor mental health or contribute significantly to it.
The organisation also offers early intervention and counselling for arts workers via a network of more than 150 trained counsellors who are registered with the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy or United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy. Those in need can access counselling without having to go through their employers or disclosing their mental state to managers.
The latter is crucial because, as Bambrough demonstrated, many never seek the help they need for fear that they will end up with “a black mark against their name”. “The number of people who are not working to their full capacity in theatre because of mental-health issues is huge. Lots of people think that depression and anxiety are just a normal part of their daily existence. I think we need to face up to it as an industry because it affects so many and some self-medicate with drink or drugs in order to cope. We end up losing a lot of skills and talent because of a failure to address mental health. But if you tackle it early rather than letting people’s situations develop into emergencies, that is good for them and good for organisations.”
Bambrough noticed that while some theatre organisations such as the National Theatre and RADA do have mental-health support in place, many arts organisations were willing to put their resources into their workers’ physical health but were ignoring their mental health. “I can think of one organisation that was paying £1,000 a month so their dancers could access physio, but they had assigned nothing for mental health. The team working on the production were complaining of burnout and stress but they had nowhere to turn.”
Wellbeing in the Arts hopes to change that, both practically but also in terms of the culture that keeps mental health hidden. Organisations can put a limit on how much they are prepared to spend each month – £500 is the minimum – but they will never know who from their team used the service, as workers contact Wellbeing in the Arts directly. Confidentiality is at the heart of it.
This comes at a time when mental-health issues in theatre are escalating, NHS counselling services have long waiting times and access to private counselling is well beyond most theatre workers’ means.
Bambrough’s argument is simple: if theatre workers have access to high-quality mental-health services, free at the point of delivery, it will prevent an often-hidden epidemic of mental health problems in the arts, stop a drain of talent and creativity and help arts organisations save money and resources because of workers lost to sick leave.
“My mental health has shaped my whole life and I do wonder what might have happened if I had been able to access help earlier. I have met so many in the industry who have had similar experiences to me. The arts have to deal with this. I’m training to be a counsellor so I can give something back. I’m telling people you are not alone.”