Providing hope in desperate times – Bectu mental health webinar hears “you are not alone”

Community is the key to supporting mental health problems and there are many initiatives to help people in the creative industries affected by the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

That was the main message from a thought-provoking Bectu webinar held yesterday (2 July), which more than 300 people dialled into.

Discussion also focused on the need to work together for longer-term change in the creative industries, with an aspiration to “build back better” to end the precarious nature of freelancing and increase support for mental health issues in productions.

The guest speakers were Alex Pumfrey, chief executive of the Film and TV charity, Peter McKintosh, Freelancers Make Theatres Work and Adeel Amini, founder of peer support group The TV Mindset.

Philippa Childs, head of Bectu, led the discussion and the webinar host was Bectu digital campaigns officer Naomi Bennett-Johnson.

You are not alone

Alex Pumfrey had two messages for those affected by mental health issues in the pandemic – you are not alone and support is available.

Last year her charity had commissioned the Looking Glass survey of nearly 10,000 people, which found nearly nine in ten people working in TV and film experiencing a mental health problem, compared to 65% of the UK population – even before the pandemic.

It was essential to look at the reasons, in order to begin the work now under way to address the underlying causes. “I often say that this isn’t about the fruit bowls; this is about really tackling the things that are going on within our industry. One of the best ways of summing it up are the words freelancers used to express how they were feeling and those words were ‘disposable’ and ‘expendable’.”

Lockdown had accelerated the problems – on the day it was announced, 24 March, national figures for anxiety and depression doubled and have remained at around 40% higher than normal.

She highlighted her charity’s recognition of the particular pressures facing Black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the light of the death of George Floyd and the renewed exposure of systemic racism within society and the industry.

Alex outlined the range of support available from the Film and TV charity and highlighted the work of others like Bectu, ScreenSkills, The TV Mindset and many more. “One thing that is heartening is the way people from the industry have pulled together and everyone is trying to help their colleagues,” she said.

Someone to pick you up

Peter McKintosh added the perspective of those in theatres and live events and described the work of Freelancers Make Theatres Work, set up by volunteers just a month ago.

He said the lack of a timeframe was a major impediment to theatres being able to reopen and even if a date was set, there would be months of work to get people back up to performance level, sets built and a minefield of other things no one had thought about.

His group was set up to advocate for the freelance theatre workforce and because so many people were getting no information after lockdown. Peter himself had heard nothing in 11 weeks about the industry he had worked in for 25 years.

“The group of people that came together in some magical way, like sometimes happens in theatre, are the most extraordinary, wonderful group. A lot of us haven’t met each other, we have only seen each other on Zoom  – and every single day, the minute you dip someone is there to pick you up.”

They had decided launching a comprehensive website would reach the widest number of people. An anonymous survey had generated 9,000 responses. Alongside this were three actions – a Twitter photo campaign, writing to MPs and encouraging more people to join the group.

Peer support

TV freelancer Adeel Amini founded peer support group The TV Mindset, which runs on social media channels, after experiencing his own mental health issues. He was driven by a desire to encourage freelancers to be open about mental health and drive change across the creative industries.

The current crisis had laid bare just how deep rooted the problems are facing freelancers in the industry, with a culture of fear and feeling of having to be “hyper perfect”. People were looking for hope and support.

Between the actions of industry bodies and the government, there was a feeling of “we don’t matter”.

“If I am honest we are on the verge of a mental health emergency,” he said. “That is untenable. People will leave the industry, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds People won’t be able to get into the industry, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds and people with access issues. It is a terrifying place to be. For those of us with privilege – I have 12 years in the industry –  it is our duty to help. Whether as peer support or as an organisation or a union, this is our time to step up.

“We will do all we can to ensure this industry is happier, healthier and fairer going forward.”It was essential to keep the “human side” at the heart of any campaigning and the way forward should “not take us back to the status quo”.According to Pumfrey, there is “appallingly little known” about mental health issues specifically impacting BAME people in the UK.

“A lot of what these communities go through is incredibly insidious – isolation, marginalisation – and the biggest impact of that is poor mental health.”

She was speaking a day after the launch of her charity’s five-point commitment to tackling racism in the film and TV industry.

These include the launch of a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Community Fund, the commissioning of an independent review into the charity’s existing programmes and the creation of additional platforms for under-represented communities.

Pumfrey reiterated fears that the industry will go “backwards on diversity” once the worst impacts of the pandemic are over.

“As we come out of this crisis our first priority should be making sure these people are adequately supported and enabled for the future, while also looking at the future talent pipeline.”

Working together

Philippa Childs welcomed the fact that “so many of us are collaborating across the industry to make change happen”.

She echoed other speakers’ insistence that stronger support networks are required and that employers need to be “pushed to do better”.

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