The Agony of the artist: shocking report

23 Mar 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 23 Mar 2018

A report just published into the mental health of people working in the creative sector is truly shocking and needs to be addressed.

The study which was carried out by the well being charity Inspire and Ulster University surveyed 574 people who work in the creative industries. It found that they were three times more likely to suffer from mental ill health than the general population. 60% were analysed to have a “probable” mental health condition. This contrasts with 17% for the general population. The Performing Arts sector is the most vulnerable of all at 63.3%.

To be more specific participants were from the full range of creative industries, including film and television, actors, visual artists and writers.

The most disturbing finding is that  60% said they had  had suicidal thoughts, 37% had made a plan for suicide and 16% had made a suicide attempt in their lifetime

Problems with drugs and alcohol are rife. This appears to be compounded by appalling practice – with 21% of those questioned reporting that they had been paid for their services in alcohol. In addition 46.5% of those questioned admitted to drug use over the past 12 months.

Researchers concluded that one of the drivers for poor mental health was the creative process itself – the tortured artist syndrome. Artistic output very often arises from personal experience, which would include times of pain and suffering. This creates a vulnerability in the artist.

One participant said this: “I concluded that in order to progress as an artist that it was necessary to embrace one’s shadow and to allow a dialogue between conscious and unconscious . This, I concluded, can make the artist very vulnerable and that this should be recognised in art colleges etc.”

Another driver is the search for perfection and the insistence of constantly maintaining the highest standards, either driven by the individual or the employer or commissioner of work. Researchers call this performance anxiety.

These two factors are perhaps inevitable consequences of working in the sector.

Yet more disturbingly there are many other drivers, all much more prosaic. The most striking is poverty – 20% of those surveyed get paid less than the minimum wage – a truly shocking statistic.

Many others are haunted by financial insecurity. Many are freelance with irregular incomes, working irregular hours on short term contracts and having to supplement their incomes through other work outside the creative sector. They also have to manage finances and do their own marketing and lack the support of a permanent employer with a duty of care.

Hanging over all of this is the completely justifiable perception that their work is not valued and certainly not sufficiently rewarded.

One writer put it rather eloquently: “Having written and published two novels… I have yet to make even the equivalent of one month's salary in my part time day job. With two children at home and a partner on an average income, I feel it is financially impossible to stop working in a non-creative job to dedicate myself to writing. This is a source of frustration and stress. I often see blank notebooks retailing at bookshops for more than a novel that has taken me two years to create. Increasingly, it feels like the arts are becoming the preserve of the wealthy-- those who can be supported by parents/partners/pensions/etc. I am lucky that I have a reasonably well paid part time job to subsidise my writing, but the constant juggling and feeling like there is never enough time can be exhausting and depressing.”

Being expected to work for free was a common complaint, and one which the Third Sector should note and address.

There were some very critical comments from those who were employed, alleging poor management. This is one typical example: ““I will not take another job for an arts organization as it has made me seriously ill. I feel completely taken advantage of, emotionally and financially and in the end the projects were pathetic, watered down shells of my original plans. A devastating experience...”

There was one positive finding. Despite the working conditions and the prevalence of mental ill health 67.5% were either hopeful for the future or else said they believed that the next few years would be better than the last.

The research was conducted by Dr Gillian Shorter, Lecturer in Psychology, Ulster University  She said: “Those who work in the creative sector make an important, varied contribution to our society; these findings show we need to pay more attention to their health and wellbeing. If we value the creative industries, and enjoy music, film and TV, art, writing, and other important creative outputs, we need to act and help support those who produce it.”

The report has five recommendation

The first concerns the workplace calling for better pay and also states: “A cultural shift within creative organizations large and small is required to improve the work environment and provide a kinder, more supportive and less stressful, culture across the sector.”

It wants to see employer assistance programmes for mental health extended to freelancers and calls for psychological services to improve their understanding of creative professionals and build links with the industry.

There is a condemnation of the practice of paying people in alcohol and a call for an awareness-raising campaign for the sector.

Lecturers and teachers in arts colleges need to be trained to provide education and support around mental health issues to their students, building both awareness and resilience.

Finally, it wants to see a broader recognition of the importance and value of the arts, and for this to be recognised both in funding for organisations and remuneration for individuals.

This is a devastating yet vitally important report. All those involved in employing and engaging creatives should think long and hard about it. It is truly shocking to learn that so many people who bring so much joy and insight to the rest of us are in pain – to the extent that 60% of those who responded to the question say that they had contemplated suicide. It is time to act.  



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