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Mental health woes are rife in the arts – no wonder

Are the terrible working conditions in the creative industries inevitable? Chris Maris

Mental health woes are rife in the arts – no wonder

The arts have always been linked to mental health, often in the form of stories about tortured artists. The sad life of Vincent van Gogh is but one example.

A report by Victoria University, Working in the Entertainment Industry, released in August 2015, investigated the mental health of professionals working in this sector.

It suggested that mental health problems are widespread and have more to do with insecure and harsh working conditions than romantic ideas of misunderstood genius or workers’ existing illnesses.

With the release in December last year of reports from the Productivity Commission and the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, industrial relations look set to become a focus of the political agenda in 2016.

It is therefore worth considering if there are any lessons about mental health that can be learned from this most “flexible” of work places.

Not as entertaining as it looks

Working in the Entertainment Industry was written by researchers Dr Julie van den Eynde, Professor Adrian Fisher and Associate Professor Christopher Sonn. It was commissioned and funded by Entertainment Assist, which supports the mental health of workers in the entertainment industry.

The report identified performing artists of all kinds, performing arts support workers and broadcast, film and recording media operators. A comprehensive survey combined questionnaires, demographic data and open-ended explanations to build a nationwide picture of the industry.

The report reveals that these workers suffer from the effects of uncertain employment, low pay, shift work and the need to be willing and able to work at all times and under all conditions.

The sector’s employees have three-times the level of sleep disorders than the general population. This causes serious flow-on effects on their relationships with family and friends.

Arts workers also experience symptoms of anxiety ten-times higher than the general population, and depression symptoms five-times higher.

They have higher rates of suicidal ideation, planning and attempts than the general population, and their use and misuse of drugs and alcohol are significantly greater.

These are shocking statistics which, as with studies of other industries, can be directly attributed to financial insecurity and poor working conditions.

In addition to this, workers in the entertainment industry contend with some unique experiences, the most bizarre of which is being asked to work for free.

All work, no pay

In 2013 Kylie Minogue’s production company advertised for dancers to appear in her latest music video for the reward of “exposure”. When the story hit the news the company responded quickly and offered monetary payment.

This high-profile incident may well have been the genuine mistake the company said it was, but it struck a nerve because it is sadly by no means an isolated one.

All workers in the entertainment industry, but particularly artists, are frequently asked to work for no payment. I was recently invited to present an interactive art installation for a whole day in another city for the “in-kind support” of “exposure” to festival goers.

It is difficult for people to maintain a healthy sense of self when they are consistently told their labour and skills are worth, quite literally, nothing.

Over the past couple of decades, artists and others in the entertainment industry have increasingly operated as small businesses, negotiating their own pay and conditions independently of the MEAA union.

But this deregulated market place has clearly failed. David Throsby and Anita Zednik’s research on artists’ incomes shows that wages were static in real terms from 2000/1 to 2007/8, with the negative income gap with other Australian workers growing. Working in the Entertainment Industry confirms this trend.

What the arts contribute

While wages languish in the entertainment industry, the arts have been rebranded as the Creative Industries, and variations on that theme. For example, the Victoria Ministry for the Arts, formerly known as Arts Victoria, is now called Creative Victoria.

This worthy attempt to highlight the immense contribution that the arts make to our economy and cultural lives is unfortunately not matched by commensurate support for the people who are the engine room of this public good.

Artist David Pledger has called for a strike by artists to highlight their mostly underpaid contribution to society, but this is difficult to realise in a deregulated, fragmented sector where everyone is an independent contractor who cannot afford to turn down work.

Learning to live with it

It is common to hear artists ruefully acknowledge that no-one is forcing them to work in this industry. This “freedom” to take or leave chronic underpayment is reflected in a sharp decline in the number of entertainment workers over the age of 30.

When the normal things in life that cost money come up, such as buying a house or raising children, years of training and experience are abandoned. To remain in the entertainment industry requires a personal accommodation with poverty and destructive working conditions.

Public discussion of the Working in the Entertainment Industry report has largely focused on how people in the sector can best cope with the poor mental health outcomes that stem from their work, most importantly by acknowledging the problem and seeking help.

Similarly, the recent conference Making time: arts and self-care workshopped a practical list of coping strategies for frazzled arts workers.

While these responses are useful and valid, it is striking that more has not been made of the need to change the causes of this human resources problem.

Accepting that damaging industrial conditions in the entertainment sector is a given is like offering overburdened office workers colouring books to practice mindfulness instead of allowing them to go home on time without fear of seeming uncommitted to their jobs.

Conditions in the entertainment industry actively undermine workers’ autonomy and security and contribute to very poor mental outcomes.

The current federal government would do well to consider this before it replicates such conditions in other workplaces.