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Call to heal: Mental health in the arts

The psychological toll of the pandemic


Published: 30 Jul 2021

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It’s like a recurrent sense of déjà vu:

Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) has returned just over a week after it had been lifted, and the same-old-brand-new restrictions on movement and social gathering mean that performing arts practitioners are once again grappling with the precarity of their livelihoods. On top of its social and economic disruptions, the pandemic has taken a significant psychological toll on people across all sectors of society, and the mental health of performing arts practitioners in particular has been deeply affected by the continual fluctuation of safety measures. It continues to weigh heavy, well over a year after the emergence of COVID-19.

Most arts practitioners work on freelance or project-based contracts, which means that many do not have the safety net of benefits that come with a typical full-time job, and find themselves struggling to find alternative sources of income. On top of facing financial instability and the unpredictability of the logistical shifts in the industry, many find their passion and intrinsic sense of purpose in the arts shaken. Art is an emotional medium; creative work is often driven by the need for close interpersonal interactions and, sometimes, to effect positive social change. What happens when these ideals are tested by an unprecedented crisis that brings all performances to a grinding halt? What is the depth of the arts practitioner's struggle now, and what does resilience look like?

As we feel our way into a new normal that is constantly in flux, the pressure to continue making work, to stay true to one’s professional identity and to prove oneself “essential” as an arts practitioner, can lead to neglecting one’s own emotional needs and the needs of fellow practitioners. While public awareness and discussion about mental health is growing, the pandemic’s impact on the mental health of artists has not been widely addressed, and there is a need to take stock of how artists and arts workers are processing the psychological toll of the pandemic today.

I reached out to a few arts practitioners who were open to sharing their thoughts on the pandemic’s impact on their mental health. The six individuals I spoke to are of a diverse age range, and work as artists, organisers, producers and researchers. For a more comprehensive cross-section of the collective mental health situation of artists, a wider, systematic study would have to be organised, one that could potentially generate practical ideas for mental health policies in the arts, such as this pilot study based in Victoria, Australia. Much could be done on an institutional and structural level to bolster the resilience of the arts sector. For now, I decided it would be worthwhile to have a few personal conversations to hear the perspectives and experiences of fellow arts practitioners.

I believe the basis of all mental health issues lies in self-worth—how useful you are to your family, your industry, your society.

Karen Tan, actress

Opening up about mental health

It’s notable that most of the interviewees willing to share about mental health were younger (aged 35 and below) than older. Actress Karen Tan, one of the more seasoned artists I spoke to, remarked that this gap may be because older practitioners are conditioned to a stoic mindset of self-sufficiency, while the younger generation, accustomed to the proliferation of therapy discourse on social media, generally tend to externalise their struggles.

“I believe the basis of all mental health issues lies in self-worth—how useful you are to your family, your industry, your society,” she said. “The less ‘useful’ you are, the more it affects you. That eventually does lead you to wondering about the work you do in life and even whether you deserve to be alive.”

Having worked in theatre for three decades alongside practitioners like Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma, Karen feels that her generation of artists have had to grapple with issues of self-worth at many other challenging points in their careers, which has led to a sturdier emotional resilience.

“But having said that, because I’ve dealt with depression all my life, I can understand what it’s like to be a young actor today, just worried about your future. It’s very daunting for those who’ve just graduated from arts schools, and even for those who are regular practitioners who aren’t getting any work now, because there isn’t enough funding,” she added.

Existential disorientation

For many who work in the arts, it is considered a vocation or a calling—an occupation that is deeply tied to one's reason to live or the existential core of one's identity. Many have spent years dedicating themselves to a craft, only to end up in a situation beyond their control in which they can no longer continue actualising their art. Most of the arts practitioners I spoke to felt a sense of existential disorientation and loss of purpose.

“Work was something I held on to as a kind of life raft,” shared Adrian Pang, actor and co-founder of Pangdemonium. “It gives me focus and purpose. When COVID happened, that life raft was taken away. Apart from my family, theatre is what gives meaning to my daily existence. In spite of thinking I was strong enough to weather the storm, I found myself drowning in it. In a matter of weeks, I found myself suddenly just waking up in the morning thinking, ‘I don't feel like me.’ That’s the danger of defining yourself by the work that you do.”

Adrian Pang in The Commission (SIFA 2021)

Adrian Pang in <i>The Commission</i>, staged in June 2021, where the actor opened up about his life and mental health. Photo credit: Singapore International Festival of Arts

A few months after last year’s circuit breaker, Adrian sought help from a counsellor. He also began taking antidepressants—something he had never done before, despite experiencing symptoms of depression since his teenage years. These forms of support, in addition to scheduling some “quiet time” periodically, continue to help him manage his mental health. 

For some practitioners, their involvement in the arts was not necessarily a calling, but it did serve as an avenue to release difficult emotions, and they had to find other sources of support when those avenues were taken away. A dance practitioner-researcher who requested to be addressed as L. shared that the beginning of the circuit breaker brought on extreme anxiety for her because the dance and movement workshops she had been attending had been cancelled. They had been helping her de-stress and center herself, and were a source of solace after the passing of a family member in late 2019.

She then turned to therapy in order to process her experiences. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was prescribed medication, but developed allergies, prompting her to seek other forms of care. “I started reading about self-care and collective care, and found some communities that have conversations around these forms of care. That’s been helpful for me.”

Some practitioners have found ways of staying true to their creative identities even if not necessarily aligned with their professional discipline. “I definitely have thoughts like, ‘Theatre was supposed to be my purpose for living.’ But that kind of thinking narrows your identity, and can become unhealthy,” said actress and arts practitioner Shannen Tan. “Now I would say, rather than ‘it gives me purpose’, it’s purposeful, it’s meaningful to me. There are other ways of staying creative.”

Pottery and pole-dancing are some of the alternative creative outlets that she found fulfilling during the pandemic. She has also taken to experimenting with creative ideas within the confines of her room. “I started reading scripts and monologues just by myself, in my room, without feeling the need to commercialise the practice. I realised that it’s important to differentiate between the arts industry and our identity as artists.”

She added that she keeps to a training schedule to keep herself physically ready to return to performing, citing the director Anne Bogart who, in a conversation with director Edith Podesta, likened the momentum gathered in an arrow before it is released from the bow (“sats'' in Norweigan) to the embodied preparedness of an artist in a period of fallow when there are few opportunities for active practice.

The pain of pivoting

The pandemic has spawned another new catchphrase for the books: pivoting. The expectation and demand for arts practitioners to readily drop their profession and transition into another industry, or adapt their practice to the digital space, is a significant source of stress, according to counsellor and applied theatre practitioner Rosemary McGowan, who has been organising an intermittent Performers’ Emotional Support Group since August 2019.

She pointed out that if arts practitioners wanted to be in a different industry, they wouldn’t have been in the arts in the first place. “For a lot of people, working in the arts is a way of balancing their mental health, right? The digitisation of the arts is a whole other career, and not everyone can or should be expected to go into it. For a lot of people, it's brought up a lot of stuff like, Who am I? What is my worth? All of these core beliefs that we have, that then leave us feeling untethered.”

Several other arts workers shared similar feelings of disorientation under the pressure to pivot. Last year, arts practitioner Ke Weiliang took up stints in food delivery and a traineeship in a tech company in order to sustain himself, after five years of producing and project-managing in the arts. Ultimately, the pandemic taught him that the most important pivot is towards whatever makes you feel comfortable, whether you find it in the arts or outside of it. “I believe in doing anything to take care of yourself, first and foremost, regardless of form,” he shared, “I’ll pursue whatever fits a certain philosophy I want to explore at a particular time, whether it’s in theatre or dance, or even a non-art form.” His current creative practice explores “physically distanced intimacy” which takes the form of hand-written letters and postcards as an exercise in slowness, patience and introspection in the midst of the chaos of the pandemic.

Where do we go from here?

Considering the resurgence of COVID-19 cases and tightening safety measures, the future for the arts looks about as uncertain as it did last year. What is clear is that nothing will be the way it was before, and it’s still early to tell how art-making might change in light of the psychological upheaval faced by the community. But this uncertainty can give rise to creative possibilities oriented towards fostering a better relationship with oneself and the world.

“I think theatre can thrive after a time of crisis,” Shannen said. “Historically, after major wars, for example, a whole new language of theatre was born—surrealism, post-dramatism. The collective consciousness reshapes a whole new movement of theatre.”

“Everyone has a different philosophy of art, but for me right now, theatre and art create acts of healing within the community that we're in, especially in a time where we feel so disconnected and lonely, and more aware than ever of how scary the world is, with climate change and other crises.”

How might the kind of art we make, or the way we make it, help us recuperate over the current upheaval? “I observe that we have a very individualistic idea of what an artist is—the image of the solo, tortured artist,” L. shared. “For some artists, it doesn’t go further than wanting to be validated by others. But I think collective forms of making or experiencing art can be healing—such as Tactility Studies. It’s a space of play that feels safe and grounding.”

Tactility Studies

Tactility Studies: Hold to Reset (2021). Photo credit: Moonrise Studio

Tactility Studies is an ongoing participatory performance project started by Chong Gua Khee and Bernice Lee in 2018 that explores “the body as theatre”. It considers touch as a language through which participants may practice articulating more sensitive relationships with themselves and the world. While it was conceived before the pandemic, its recent iterations over the past year resonate with, and respond to, a world that is suffering psychological damage arising from isolation, reduced mobility and proscriptions on touch.

Notions of healing, holding space, and communities of care were common threads in the responses I received to questions of how the arts community might move forward. Rosemary cited examples of members of the arts community forming small, informal groups in which to share experiences with each other and listen without judgement.

“I think we need to recognise that we are going through a difficult time,” she commented, “Yet we are told we need to continue as per normal. We have a whole country of people who are struggling, but are taught to just keep going.” What we need, she feels, is to give ourselves a break, and to spend time checking in with ourselves and each other.

“The pandemic has made me more open to asking for help, not just from one person, but to find decentralised sources of support,” Weiliang reflected. When he had to step back from the arts industry to work other jobs, he realised that it was the relationships he had fostered with fellow arts practitioners that mattered more than fighting for a sustainable livelihood in the arts. “I've come to realise that there are more important things than your art, and that it’s okay to step back if you need to.”

The key, then, is to give space for the heavy emotional experience of the pandemic, to acknowledge that it’s okay to not be okay, and that many people are feeling not-okay in various degrees. It’s also crucial to remember that the arts is not inherently a cure-all or a substitute for therapy. The little things that make the arts worthwhile— the relationships, the shared experiences of empathy and the ability to sit with complex emotions together—tapping on these might just be what helps carry us through the fog. 

Further reading

1. “How To Get Mental Health Help (On a Budget)” by Shannen Tan: a resource list of affordable mental healthcare in Singapore

2. Rosemary McGowan’s website for mental health resources including the Performers’ Emotional Support Group and more

Contributed by:

Akanksha Raja

Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.

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