A Light in the Dark: Mental Illness & the Arts

Alexa Juno

In recent history, Broadway has accumulated its fair share of shows that deal in the theme of mental illness. From “Next to Normal” to “Dear Evan Hansen”. From “Spring Awakening” to “The Light in the Piazza, the theatre community of late has made mental health a deservedly important priority in their storytelling. Whether it’s Diana Goodman’s struggle with schizophrenic bi-polar depression or the uphill battle with dementia depicted in “The Father”, the theatre community has unquestionably aided in the exploration and normalization the plight of mental illness. In placing characters struggling with these afflictions at the forefront of their storytelling these works have played an indispensable role in humanizing a population and de-stigmatizing their conditions. 

The normalization of mental illness via the theatre has been a point of pride within the worldwide theatrical family and their ability to illuminate the plight of the mentally ill is an unquestionably laudable endeavor. However, for a community that has placed such a high premium on its ability to tell the stories of the mentally ill, the conversation surrounding mental health within that community appears to be sorely lacking.

In the wake of last year’s news of a former Broadway dancer brutally murdering his boyfriend,  many in the theatre community were quick to point out the inconsistencies in the mental health conversation for performing arts professionals. A simple Google search confirms this theory, with inquiries into “mental illness in theatre” being met with articles such as “Five Musicals That Discuss Mental Illness” and many column inches devoted to the bravery of writers and actors for tackling the subject matter. Yet for all of this theatrical grandstanding, it seems that when it comes to the mental health of arts professionals, there are shockingly few easily accessible resources for an issue that is hugely more common than we realize.  

Much research has shown that theatre artists, actors specifically, are more prone to emotional instability. A study done at the University of Adelaide in Australia just this summer showed that actors are more prone to suffer from anxiety and depression, conditions that stem from lack of employment security, general work environment, perfectionism, complex interpersonal relationships, drinking culture within the arts, and “vicarious trauma” from absorbing the emotions and experiences of various characters. And not only did actors prove more prone to these conditions, the actors in the study were also tested as being less likely to report them.

Marcus Bellamy, sadly, isn’t even the first high-profile case of mental illness in the theatre community this year.  Last summer, a Broadway stagehand, who friends said was prone to bouts of aggression after a head injury, was gunned down during an altercation with police in midtown Manhattan.  The theatre community in Chicago is also bouncing back after an expose of a traumatic and long-lived cycle of abuse at Profiles Theatre was widely circulated this year.  For over a decade, an unstable actor, Darrell Cox, exercised a reign of terror over the company of Profiles both onstage and off, leaving many to question his mental health and leaving more than one actor in his wake on shaky emotional ground. 

A quick scan of the health care coverage of theatrical unions (Equity [Actors/Stage Managers], Local 802 [Musicians], and IATSE [Stagehands]) tells us that the mental health coverage for these professionals is more than adequate, with all offering low co-pays and a reasonable amount of covered time for in and outpatient treatments. So if coverage isn’t the issue, then what is? And what of the members of our community who have yet to attain union status? How are those who have not reached the topmost rungs of our industry to navigate the financial hurdles of treatment in a notoriously unstable profession?

Ben Platt, Michael Park, Jennifer Laura Thompson in Dear Evan Hansen Photo: Margot Schulman

Ben Platt, Michael Park, Jennifer Laura Thompson in Dear Evan Hansen Photo: Margot Schulman

From disordered eating, to struggles with self-worth, substance abuse, injury-induced isolation and an almost unavoidable depression that sets in when experiencing the rejection associated with an artistic path, a life in the arts is rife with potential to negatively impact a practitioner's mental health. So why would this facet of the artistic experience not be more widely discussed and resources readily available? Where is the section on Playbill.com for Health Resources? Is there a thread on the BroadwayWorld message board for effective mental health treatments and alternatives for arts professionals? Where is the sing-a-long video for Dancers With Anxiety?

In terms of heart, the lack of conversation about mental health within the arts says nothing of the character of the typically supportive arts community. This is merely a symptom of a widespread hesitation to discuss mental health in any vocation or capacity. And it is this lack of discussion that so many find concerning. This inability to acknowledge that those within the arts are uniquely vulnerable to mental illness and that the struggles of mental illness are far more than prevalent in this industry than many of us know.  

But I believe we can and should do better. For a community that takes so much pride in putting on shows that add to the discussion surrounding mental health, we should make a bigger show out of recognizing the potential for mental illness within our sphere and do more to protect and empower our own.