August 3, 2023

Mental Health & the Unscripted Industry

Shaudi Bianca Vahdat
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Working in unscripted entertainment, or in any part of the entertainment industry, can be uniquely fulfilling. It can also be uniquely taxing on your mental health. 

Individual filmmakers and major studios have taken steps to improve mental health in the entertainment industry. But there’s still a serious need for self-advocacy and self-care when it comes to mental health support for artists in the entertainment industry. 

This article will look at common mental health concerns and maintenance techniques for entertainment professionals. We’ll put a particular focus on those who work in unscripted content, but there are applications for individuals working across the entertainment industry.

Introducing Laura Langley

Laura Langley is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. For the past seven years, she has worked full time in her own private practice, Be Well Counseling. About 25% of her clients are either in or adjacent to the professional entertainment industry. 

In her practice, Laura works with individuals, couples, and families on a range of issues. She is a trauma specialist and is also pursuing a PhD in Clinical Sexology, which explores the role of sexuality and gender in identity and relationships.

Prior to starting her own practice, Laura’s work was in residential and intensive outpatient programs for chemical dependency and long-term behavioral health concerns. Before that, she worked in the entertainment industry herself, as an actor, writer and producer. Because of this background, Laura says, 

"I think I have a fair understanding of the intersections of entertainment and mental health having been in both worlds. And the intersection's pretty significant." 

Laura guides us through understanding the specific mental health challenges she sees in the industry and steps entertainment professionals can take to protect their well-being. 

What are common challenges to mental health in the entertainment industry?

If you work in the entertainment industry, some studies say you are much more likely to struggle with mental health challenges than the general public. 

A 2022 survey of entertainment professionals in the U.K. found that only 35% of respondents reported their mental health as “good” or “very good.” Sixty percent of respondents reported they considered leaving the industry due to mental health concerns.

If one or more of your identities is underrepresented in the industry, the same U.K. study shows you may be particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns. 

There is a clear need for improved mental health support for artists in the entertainment industry. We asked Laura to detail some of the specific ways working in unscripted television and entertainment in general can impact your mental health. 

The daily reality of the business  

For many roles in the entertainment industry, most days you’re not actually doing the work you’re passionate about. 

Most actors, for example, spend most of their time in (unpaid) auditions and meetings, not acting in projects. In fact, the unpaid nature of auditions was one of the issues SAG-AFTRA struck over in 2023.

Many aspiring directors spend years in roles other than directing. And many individuals across the industry need to work day jobs in order to stay financially stable. 

"...You're often doing a job that is not the job you wanted to do when entering the field." 

This can be discouraging. Working in film is often grueling. But getting to do work you care about can help motivate you through the difficulties. The lack of that motivation can wear down your mental health in the entertainment industry over time. 

Work is inconsistent 

The nature of many roles in the industry is project-based. This means that even when you do land the work you want, it’s on a limited basis, without guarantee of continued work. 

Even if you work with a production company that offers some long-term security, external factors like cultural or political changes heavily impact the entertainment field. Recent examples include Covid-19 and the 2023 WGA Strike.

“There's no certainty… So even if you have a job that feels long-term, the tides could change politically, the tides could change culturally. And so that feeling... that this job might not be forever brings a chronic anxiety and a propensity to overwork when work is available and then to have periods of time of either unemployment or low employment, and that cyclical structure of work is really challenging for a lot of folks."

The combination of constant anxiety and overwork leads to high rates of burnout in the industry. Many entertainment professionals end up leaving the field because they feel they have to, not because they’re ready to move on to other professional interests. 

Overwork is the norm 

For those whose work is project-based, it’s common to put everything into a production at the expense of your mental and physical well-being. This is particularly true in an industry that tends to place the production above all else. 

“The show must go on,” as the saying goes.

This can create a culture in which turning down projects is almost unthinkable. 

"People are afraid to take vacations, people are afraid to take breaks...There's a crew member that I'm thinking of that hadn't taken a vacation in like 15 years. Because the fear of, ‘If I turn down the next job to take a vacation, then I'm also turning down probably the next three jobs, because it's the next job that's going to set up the job after that.’ And so that fear that… this week vacation with my family might turn into two months of unemployment keeps people from taking sick time, taking family leave, taking vacation. And so there's this cycle of overwork, burnout, overwork, burnout that can happen.”

Laura particularly observes this among people who work in film crew positions. While there tends to be more job availability for these roles, Laura also sees more pressure to keep working.

Compounding the overwork problem is the physical nature of film and set life. 

“The physical demands, of being on set, of being on location, of having shift work so sometimes you're working at night, sometimes in the morning. And that can have a profound effect both physically and mentally, the strain of that." 

This is particularly true for crew members of unscripted projects, where the pace is even more strenuous and hours can be more unpredictable. 

Relationships can be challenging 

Working long, shifting hours, uncertainty, and not feeling able to take time off can all lead to relationship strain. Laura observes that many entertainment professionals keep most of their important relationships within the industry. This includes friendships and romantic relationships. 

This isn’t exclusive to entertainment – it also occurs in other industries with specialized schedules, like medicine or service. 

"You also see these sort of family pods develop from project to project. The show that is happening, those are your family members, that is your friend group, that is who you're dating. Which is great if it's a good environment. If it's people that you like and it's healthy and there's boundaries. But a lot of times, there's not.” 

Poor working conditions on set can lead to trauma bonding. This in turn can lead to unsatisfying, unhealthy, or even destructive relationships.

Unscripted work can bring unique challenges 

Being involved in any role in an unscripted project can‌ impact your mental wellbeing. Those in front of the camera for unscripted content can experience particularly high stress upon the material’s release. 

"People are really exposing themselves, and are also often unprepared for what that's going to be like to be in the public. To be not in control of a final product that is going to give people an idea of who they are as humans.”

Performers and crew who work on unscripted projects may also receive less credit in the eyes of the public and press for their work than their scripted counterparts. This arises from a common misconception that because unscripted work is supposed to be capturing reality, there is less work or art involved in its creation. 

“I think that's really a disservice to people who work on those shows because it's a really challenging job.” 

This lack of recognition can lead to a faster burnout rate.

Because of all these factors, those working in the unscripted industry can particularly benefit from putting a strong emphasis on their mental health care. 

How to maintain your mental health

Managing all of these strains on your wellbeing may seem daunting. But it is possible to have a long, satisfying career and maintain your mental health in the entertainment industry. 

Laura shares her tips for awareness and self-care. 

Acknowledge your reality 

Laura finds that some entertainment professionals are afraid to complain or admit they're feeling burned out by work. In a field where steady employment can be difficult to find, an “at least I have a job” mentality can take hold.  

But the first step toward supporting your mental health in the entertainment industry is being able to acknowledge how you really feel. 

"Part of it is just understanding that feeling stress and feeling that this is a challenging industry to work in are valid. It's completely valid. And just because you chose it doesn't mean that it's not challenging. Both can exist. You can love your work and still find it grueling and need to have some self-care around the thing that you chose to do." 

If you’re exhausted or stressed by work, acknowledge that. Then you can act to manage those feelings. 

Know yourself 

Be clear on your own values and ethics, and use them to guide the work you accept. 

For unscripted content in particular, difficult ethical questions can sometimes be essential to the premise of the project. 

Laura observes that when you’re working 16-hour days on a show that you personally hate, "That can be a really hard dynamic to navigate." If you have questions around the intention or values of a project before signing on, ask them.

James Marsden’s questions before Jury Duty are an excellent example to follow. 

Of course, turning down projects because they are out of alignment with your values can feel like a luxury in this industry. This is particularly true if you lack the privilege of a James Marsden. But it can benefit your longevity in the field in the long run by putting less strain on your mental health. Your career, and your life, are a marathon, not a sprint. Think about you tomorrow – be the you that you can be proud of.

Do you feel like you have to take on a project that you’re not completely on board with ethically? You can still benefit from actively acknowledging that to yourself while working on the project. 

"[My advice] for people who work in and around those projects is really monitoring your boundaries in terms of what you feel is appropriate, ethical, what you really want to put your heart and soul into.”

You can better protect your boundaries by being aware of them. Try to cultivate and practice this awareness before, during, and after a project. Writing down your personal values and code of ethics before a challenging project may be particularly helpful.  

Check in regularly  

The fast pace of production means time for intentional self-awareness can be hard to find. For example, meditating for three hours (or even 30 minutes) a day is probably not feasible!

However, setting an attainable mindfulness goal can go a long way toward protecting your mental health in the entertainment industry. 

"Even if it's only five minutes a day where you're checking in with yourself, you're taking some deep breaths, you're just seeing what's there.”

Find five minutes every day to sit with yourself in a quiet space, and assess. It doesn’t have to be an abstract, clear-your-mind moment if that doesn’t work for you. 

Instead, check in on your body. How are your feet? Are your shoulders holding tension? How is your breath? Laura advises that paying attention to your breathing is a great way to get a read on the state of your mental health. 

“Your breathing is the essential way to speak to your body in the language it understands.” 

A guided meditation app, like Calm,  Headspace or Insight Timer might be useful to you here.

You can also use this daily check-in time to make sure your basic needs are being met. Ask yourself, says Laura:

“Am I sleeping enough, am I eating enough, how is my mental health?” 

Apart from self check-ins, it’s also crucial to have external support you can touch base with. 

“Seeing a therapist for example, or having support that understands the nature of your work, and of your profession and of the field that you find yourself in. That's critical. Having a sense of community, connection, is such a fundamental part of self-care and of ensuring mental health. It's very difficult to survive as a human let alone in a challenging work environment if you don't have that connection and support." 

We’ll look further at how to find an entertainment psychologist or therapist later in this article. 

Prepare for resistance 

Once you have done the work of bringing awareness to your needs and acknowledging that they are valid, it’s time to act. 

This will look different for everyone, but it all falls under the umbrella of self-care. 

Despite recent advancements, our culture has a long way to go when it comes to prioritizing mental health in the entertainment industry. Because of this, Laura says you should plan on meeting ‌resistance as you practice true self-care. 

"Self-care is a street fight. It is every day saying 'yes' to yourself, knowing that that usually means you're saying 'no' to someone else. Which in an industry filled with people-pleasers can be really challenging. And that if you're doing self-care correctly, you're probably pissing people off. 
Because you're saying no, because you need to take care of yourself, because you need more sleep, because you need to spend time with your kids, because you need to go to your therapy appointment, because you know that this is going to be a toxic work environment and even though it would be good for your resume, it's not going to be good for your psyche. 
And so really recognizing that self-care it's radical, it is active, and it is really challenging to do effectively in a career that really asks you to ...always [put] the production first.”

As you take steps to better care for your mental health in the entertainment industry, you might face guilt-tripping, minimizing, or even lost work opportunities as a result. 

However, by intentionally removing yourself from a cycle of overwork and burnout, you will also be better at your job. For example, your immune system will be stronger with adequate sleep.

As a result, you’ll get sick less often and recover faster when you do. 

Research suggests that sleep deprivation has adverse effects on your executive function, which is regulated by the prefrontal cortex. More rest allows your prefrontal cortex to function better, meaning you’ll have better decision-making and communication skills at work. 

And you might inspire others to redefine expectations of work as well. By your actions, 

"...You can communicate to others: We can be really good at our jobs, and we can do it for a long time, and take care of ourselves. It is not one or the other."

By practicing true self-care, you’re helping to change the culture of the industry for the better. 

Know when to seek professional treatment

There’s a lot you can do to protect your own mental health. At a certain point, however, you may need the assistance of a professional. Professional mental health support for artists in the entertainment industry is available. 

Signs that it’s time to seek professional help include big changes in appetite, mood, or sleep habits. 

If you’re at a point of extreme exhaustion or stress, though, you might not be in touch with yourself enough to notice these types of changes. In that case, observe your coping strategies instead. 

Do you notice yourself reaching for more coffee or wine than normal? Are you suddenly spending more or less on groceries or takeout? These could be signs your sleep or mood is off. 

"Your body always tells the truth...If you want to know if it's time to go to therapy, take some really deep breaths, sit somewhere that's quiet and just see how your body feels."

Feeling depressed, anxious, or just not quite “yourself” are also signs it’s time to see a therapist. This infographic from the National Alliance on Mental Health breaks down more common signs of mental illness.

If you can, however, try to establish a relationship with a therapist before reaching a point of crisis. Laura says it is “never too soon” to find a therapist. Even if you’re not in consistent sessions with them, it will benefit you to have already gone through the process of finding the right person and establishing rapport before you’re in critical need.

"By the time a lot of folks come to my office they're years past when they should have. People will wait until everything has fallen apart. None of their coping strategies have worked. They're either on the brink of divorce or nervous collapse or the burnout has gotten significant that their job is in jeopardy. That's way past. You absolutely need professional help at that point." 

Just as we use preventative medicine to reduce emergencies in our physical health, therapy can be used to preventatively protect your mental health. 

Tips on finding a therapist 

When looking for a therapist, how important is it to find someone with prior knowledge of the entertainment industry? Laura says: 

"It’s relevant. I think it's helpful to have a therapist who's gonna have cultural competence with any sort of identifying factor in your life, though it's not critical."

What is critical is finding a therapist that understands you. Laura recommends “therapist shopping,” or trying several therapists until you find one you’re comfortable with. 

“...The research shows that the biggest indicator of whether or not therapy is going to be effective is the relationship between the therapist and the client. Not the theoretical orientation of the therapist, not where they went to school, not their gender, not any of that."

Behind the Scenes Charity’s Mental Health Initiative offers a free, easy-to-use Entertainment Industry Therapist Finder that can help you find your therapist. For a more general therapy-finder tool, Laura recommends the Psychology Today Therapist Finder.

Know that not all therapists who have experience working in mental health in the entertainment industry will call themselves “entertainment psychologists.” 

The term “entertainment psychologist” isn’t regulated by the various counseling and psychologist boards in the United States. So a therapist with this background may not have the words “entertainment psychologist” in their online bio or profile.

If you want to know about their background working in mental health in the entertainment industry, just ask. 

“‘Do you understand the demands of this [entertainment industry] job?’ You don't want to see a therapist that's going to try to talk you out of your chosen profession. That's not gonna be a good fit...If somebody acts surprised by what you do or says ‘Oh I don't have any experience with that,’ that's something to look out for. Go with your gut."

Ask the same questions for any other parts of your identity that are important to you, such as sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or cultural background. Your chosen industry is relevant, but there may be other parts of your identity that are also important for your therapist to understand.

Remember, if you initially think a therapist is a strong fit, but change your mind later, you can always end the relationship and find a different therapist. 

Wrapping up

Thank you to Laura for sharing your insights on mental health support for artists in the entertainment industry. You can learn more about Laura’s work or contact her with questions via Be Well Counseling

Are you looking to work in reality TV? Check out our recent guide on finding reality TV jobs and deep dive into unscripted collaboration.

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Last Updated 
August 3, 2023


At Wrapbook, we pride ourselves on providing outstanding free resources to producers and their crews, but this post is for informational purposes only as of the date above. The content on our website is not intended to provide and should not be relied on for legal, accounting, or tax advice.  You should consult with your own legal, accounting, or tax advisors to determine how this general information may apply to your specific circumstances.

About the author
Shaudi Bianca Vahdat

Shaudi is a Seattle-based musician, theatre artist, writer and social media marketing specialist. She holds degrees from Berklee College of Music and the University of Washington School of Drama.

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