Home / Featured / BLOG: Annemarie Lewis Thomas… Mental Health Education starts at College

BLOG: Annemarie Lewis Thomas… Mental Health Education starts at College

Annemarie LewisPhilippa Howard, assistant secretary of the union’s Bristol and west general branch, called for the creation of a section on Equity’s website detailing organisations that offer help for people with mental health problems as a “first step” to creating a dialogue around the issues.

The above paragraph was taken from The Stage on 22nd May and if a motion could be cyber applauded, consider this blog a standing ovation for this proposal.

I have a theory based on nothing other than observation and discussion that a large percentage of our industry enter the arts as an escape from ‘reality’, I’ll add very quickly that I include myself in that percentage. I have spent a majority of my teaching career taking a pastoral lead in various colleges – in fact I bet if you spoke to any singing teacher you’ll find the same story – a student comes in to sing, they open their mouths and before you know it we’re passing the tissues, offering them a seat and hearing about an ‘issue’. I am also one of the people that subscribe to the thinking that singing is 90% psychology and 10% technique (and before all the Estill scholars point out their scientific findings to me, it is the right of all of us to subscribe to our own pedagogy and to me there’s merit in a bit of everything) – therefore the tissues (and the seat) are an important part of my tool kit.

While out in the industry working with professionals of varying experience I’ve been amazed by how many people have felt the need to ‘act out’ their life issues within companies, whether that’s been by bullying younger members of the company due to their own insecurities, or methodically falling in love with every member of the cast as they so desperately crave that special someone (causing destruction and/or drama in their path), or just downright bad behaviour (which you understand is a cry for something but you just wish that they’d sort out whatever that something is and not bring it into your show).

Now before I get shot down there are also lots of very sorted, happy individuals merrily just choosing performing as a job because it’s a dream. I’m just saying that I think that we attract a certain sort of person more than say what we would consider a ‘regular’ job does. It’s my hypothesis.

Combine my theory with the realities of the industry that we’re in – absolutely no security…ever! My students just spent three weeks doing their private agent auditions, every day they got dressed up, rep in hand, delivered the best performance that they could at this point in time….all of them stormed it (I know, I was there) and yet, as is the way of the world everyday the majority of them would face rejection. If they were lucky they might be asked to sing another song but even that wasn’t a guarantee of anything (even though of course you then convince yourself that they’ve liked you). The agent exchanges pleasantries with you, it’s all very amicable (and indeed genuinely so) then that’s it… nothing. Next day, same process. It’s relentless! How do you keep yourself sane going through that sort of routine for the rest of your career (and that’s assuming that you’re lucky enough to even get an audition)? Then you get a job, you think that you’re safe, you’re opening in a West End show. There’s a big press night, the critics love you, next thing you know you’re receiving your notice and you’re unemployed two weeks later? How do you deal with that level of insecurity as a lifestyle choice?

Strangely enough we are drawn to this masochistic adrenaline rush because the pay off is huge, we get to perform but at what cost? Now our industry can’t make you mentally ill, however for those people that have a susceptibility to mental illness (and statistics would suggest that far more of us do than we would like to believe) this industry can easily tip those people over the edge. It’s a little bit like saying that calling someone fat can give them an eating disorder. An eating disorder (itself a mental illness let’s not forget) is a much more complex beast than an illness created by name calling, the susceptibility or vulnerability was there much earlier than the name calling, and indeed the issues around the problem are far more complex than most people realise.

Therefore when I was planning to open The MTA back in 2008 the cornerstone of the thinking behind this new kind of college was to have a counsellor at the heart of the college. As opposed to someone like me taking a pastoral lead, or there being a counsellor ‘available’ to students but never really utilised; at my college this person had to be one of the most important members of the faculty – as known to the students as my Heads of Department. Actor training is hard – on a simple level studying Stanislavski and his theories you are encouraged to go to places that maybe, just maybe you didn’t really want to go back to but as a college predominantly working with young adults I believe that we have a responsibility to follow through those findings, and not just patch them up and send them out into the world (so that they are well away from us when the inevitable mental health crises happens).

I wanted to run a college whereby we actually dealt with the issues, more than that, to create a culture where it was OK to visit the counsellor – because you were homesick, you had stage fright, because you didn’t know whether this career choice was right for you anymore or god forbid because the reality that you wanted to escape from had just crept up in that old Stanislavski class and bit you on the backside. I did not want to run a college that plastered over the cracks. I knew that it was possible within the time frame and with the right counsellor on board to actually help people move forward in a positive way. So that’s what we created.

Our counsellor, Angie Peake is extraordinarily skilled in what she does having worked as a youth centric counsellor for several years but our big advantage I believe is that she is also a dual registered nurse specialising in adolescent acute mental health – therefore we have been able to pick up illnesses at very early stages thanks to our pro-active approach to counselling. The service is confidential well that’s the theory at least, but the culture at the college now is such that people just name that they’re going to have a chat with her and nobody cares or asks why – we’re all just pleased that people are going.

The singing, acting and voice staff got it instantly, the dancing department not so much – until they started seeing the results. Sometimes a person can’t do a pirouette for a reason other than a bad preparation (just like sometimes you can’t hit a note just because you know it’s high). I honestly believe that the success rate of our students is predominantly due to the work that they do with Angie, however much more importantly than that – I know that every student leaves us happy in their own skin (or as happy as anybody can be at that age) with an amazing resource always just a phone call away when they need it (because of course we operate a college for life policy and our counselling service is an integral part of that policy).

My students are no more confused/angry/upset/bewildered than any other students at colleges up and down the country it’s just that I believe that to make them robust to deal with the rigours of our industry we have to teach them to protect themselves – just like we teach them to look after their voices and bodies – we also ask them and show them how to take care of their mental well being, because let’s face it, none of us knows who is really susceptible or not.

An actress friend of mine killed herself last year, she was younger than I was. Maybe… just maybe… if she had been treated earlier things might have been different. Now we’ll never know… but that should never stop us trying.

Brighton Fringe Directory

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One comment

  1. Having just worked as a visiting director at an accredited Drama School, I salute these wise ideas. Several students manifested severe mental health problems, and this meant that other students were damaged and intimidated by the insane few. I have to say that once I’d completed my contract, I ran for the hills. It was terrifying to be around people whose severe illness was going unchecked and unrecognised, especially as it contained hysterical accusatory paranoia and malice. Scary stuff.