There is no shame in asking for help.
That is the common message from organizations that provide mental and behavioral health services both to Local 600 members and to the industry at large. During the best of times, work is competitive and can be hard to come by for a freelance industry. Throw in the challenges of everyday life like parenting, juggling bills, and getting food on the table then add the Coronavirus pandemic and you’ve got a recipe for maximum stress.
“A lot of the members I’ve been talking to during the pandemic have never had problems before with anxiety or depression, but they’re dealing with it right now,” said Lisa Guerriero, chair of the Local 600 Health and Welfare Committee and a member of the union’s National Executive Board (NEB). “It’s the first time I feel like so many people are actually coming out and saying, ‘I’m having anxiety. I’m dealing with depression. I don’t know what to do.’”
Guerriero took a course as part of the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Initiative launched by the nonprofit organization Behind the Scenes (BTS). That initiative, which was launched in 2019 and has added several features since the pandemic, now includes such offerings as a list of suicide prevention resources; anti-bullying and harassment information; a therapist finder; a self-assessment tool and even an anonymous peer-to-peer chat app.
In the ramp-up to launching the initiative, Behind the Scenes organized a steering committee of people from the entertainment industry, including IATSE and other labor groups. Several of these groups already offered their own mental health resources. BTS also conducted a survey in the fall of 2019 to rank-and-file members in the industry.
“We felt we needed to hear from people in the industry about what was contributing to the conditions that were clearly affecting mental health, and we got a great response,” said BTS Executive Director Lori Rubenstein. “The information has really guided the work we’ve done in terms of developing tools and resources.”
600LIVE! also spoke to representatives from The Actors Fund, the Motion Picture and Television Fund (MPTF) and the Motion Picture Industry Pension and Health Plan (MPIPHP) about mental and behavioral health services and resources they offer to members of the entertainment industry and their families. Many of the people we interviewed noted an increase in the request for these types of services since the onset of the pandemic. Several of the resources already in place have been available pre-COVID and are now mostly accessible virtually.
MPTF – “Human Beings are not meant to live in isolation.”
In the early weeks of the pandemic, administrators at the MPTF heard from a lot of people who were immediately concerned about how they were going to make ends meet. Then as the months dragged on, social-political events brought on increased anxiety in people who reached out, according to Naomi Rodda, Director of Home and Community-Based Services.
“I think there has been an evolution in terms of what people’s mental health needs have looked like,” said Rodda. “Now what people are dealing with is COVID fatigue. It’s really hard to just keep living like this when there’s no end in sight.”
Rodda noted that crew members working together on set for several months form a bond that is very much like that of a small family. Take away the work or eliminate the ability for crew members to get together, and you also remove that family. Now therapists are hearing from people with questions and anxiety over vaccinations.
“Even with the idea we can go back to work, we’re still behind masks and there’s no touching and you have to stay apart from one another, it’s just not natural,” said Rodda, who says research equates extended social isolation to smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. “Human beings are social creatures. We’re not meant to live in isolation.”
MPTF offers access to counseling and support groups as well as inpatient services to people treated at the Samuel Goldwyn Jr. Center for Behavioral Health in Woodland Hills. Most of the organization’s individual counseling services for working-age clients are short-term and have a case management component including offering help with access to benefits, and linking to other resources. The MPTF offers longer-term counseling to retirees or working-age industry members caring for aging parents. Although it is set up largely to provide service to members based on the west coast, MPTF has served on the steering committee of the BTS initiative.
“IATSE Cares has a program where members check in on each other with a peer-to-peer initiative,” said Rodda. “There’s a reason IATSE members call each other brother and sister. You’re a family and there’s a recognition that this is an unprecedented time, and we all need to band together to take care of one another.”
The Actors Fund – “Emergency financial help is still available.”
Mental health has long been a key component of The Actors Fund (TAF) which – despite its name – services all members of the entertainment industry. For those in need of professional counseling, the organization connects callers with social workers. TAF also has a broad array of classes ranging from career counseling, financial wellness to self-care and Mindfulness Meditation. Staff members are also available to help members negotiate their benefits provided through the MPIPHP.
A COVID support group held via Zoom routinely draws 10 to 12 members per session and TAF’s career center has been of great value to members who have been facing the uncertainty of the professional climate during the industry shutdown.
“The Career Center has helped industry members look at their relationship to the world of work and help them assess transferable skills, other interests or passions they have in a time like this when the industry is stalled,” said Tina Hookom, Director of Social Services – Western Region for TAF. “Right now, we’re seeing a lot of people obviously just trying to manage COVID and manage the loss of work and the unknown that we all are managing during this pandemic.” Members can access both the Career Center and Social Services during this time.
Local 600 has a dedicated representative at The Actors Fund, Emily Lerner Garlick, and members are encouraged to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. In addition to the mental health services, Hookom also reminds members that the emergency financial grants that TAF gave out in the early months of the pandemic are still available to those in need.
“The current climate in LA right now is so concerning and people may not know that there’s still financial assistance available,” Hookom said. “If members need support around mental health concerns and/or financial assistance they should contact us.”
MPIPHP – “2020 was a rough year but the few years before that were pretty rough, too.”
As challenging as it may be to accomplish either goal these days, the aptly named “Live and Work Well” website of Optum has a long list of resources to do just that. There are sections for generalized mental health, substance and alcohol use, disaster planning and recovery, building your way to wellness, personal empowerment kits, federal mental health parity and suicide prevention. Through the Sanvello app, users can do daily mood tracking, set up personalized progress tools and access coping tools.
The site’s COVID-19 support page offers strategies for coping and moving forward. Optum resources are available to all MPI members in addition to any behavioral and mental wellness services offered by their chosen health plans such as Kaiser Permanente or Anthem Blue Cross.
“2020 was a rough year but the few years before that were pretty rough, too,” said Brenda Weiner, Wellness Program Manager at MPIPHP. “Ever since COVID started, I’ve been seeing a direct increase. People are reaching out more for substance abuse, to speak with a therapist and there were a lot of marriage counseling requests. I think that has to do with the lockdown.”
Like other representatives at mental health organizations, Weiner has noticed that the pandemic has helped lessen any perceived stigmatization over mental health. Through awareness and social media, celebrities have helped shine a light on issues of depression and anxiety. She points to the Calm app and its endorsement by actor Matthew McConaughey.
“Those kinds of efforts really help people to say, ‘Yeah, I can relate to that. I think it’s not so abnormal to reach out for help.”