Covid 19: Shining a Light on Mental Health of Entertainment Workers

Updated: Oct 19

Written by Kayleigh Truman

I’m a second-generation stagehand and proud member of Local One IATSE, AFL-CIO. With millions of Americans impacted by COVID-19, mental health issues are beginning to be discussed more; however, it’s still harder to talk about how much of a struggle many people continue to face. The entertainment industry, and stagehands specifically – my colleagues and union family – have some of our country’s highest rates of depression and anxiety symptoms, substance misuse, and suicide.


In 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration reported that the national

average of persons experiencing suicidal thoughts was 4.8%. In contrast, Behind the Scenes (BTS), a mental health and suicide prevention organization centered on helping entertainment workers, reported that over 45% of stagehands were experiencing similar suicidal thoughts. That’s nearly ten times the national average, and that’s before the impact of COVID-19.

Finding accurate data on the mental health of entertainment workers is difficult; there is just one

peer-reviewed academic study which was done in Australia in 2014. The BTS study and data are pertinent and highly enlightening, but that work has not been formally academically peer-

reviewed. BTS’s study is one example of a long tradition of entertainment workers trying to take care of our own.


For my Masters in Labor Studies (CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies), I conducted original research exploring the mental health of stagehands during the COVID-19 pandemic.


A few key findings from my study concluded:

  • More than 70% of participants reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depression;

  • As of August 2021, 84% reported feeling the same or worse than they were before

  • the pandemic;

  • Many stagehands reported their levels of anxiety or stress are even higher than pre-pandemic; some described feeling like they were trying to crawl out of an even deeper hole;

  • Stagehands faced numerous struggles during the pandemic, but 26% of my study’s participants reported being able to better their mental or physical health during their unexpected hiatus.

  • The availability of basic resources and the general economic stability of the individual were key determents of which stagehands were able to improve their conditions. My research suggested, and it should not be surprising, that stagehands identifying with more marginalized groups were drastically less likely to better their conditions than their white or straight counterparts.

  • Because the industry was shut down, many participants had time available that typically would have been committed to work. Some reported being able to make and keep doctors’ appointments for the first time in years, if not their lives. Instead of working 60-to-80-hour weeks, some were able to get regular sleep, see their families, improve their eating, and learn other healthier habits. Regrettably, participants said that during “normal” non-pandemic times, industry working conditions often made doing such tasks difficult, even impossible.

The ensuing questions become what can be done during normal industry times to preserve and improve stagehands’ abilities to better their mental and physical health? What can be done to allow for stagehands to practice basic self-care without sacrificing their careers?


Broadway theater is a key economic driver crucial to the overall economic health of our region.

In its 2018-2019 season, the Broadway theater industry contributed $14.7 billion to New York

City’s economy in addition to $1.8 billion in gross ticket sales. Broadway supported 96,900 local

jobs. Attendance was nearly 14.8 million, which is more than the combined attendance of the

ten NYC Metro-area professional sports teams! (NYCdata, 2019)


While audiences come to see the stars onstage, stagehands and our talents are indispensable

and make the magic happen. Too often, just doing our jobs comes at great personal cost to

stagehands’ mental and physical well-being. At times, we’re treated like broken equipment; if we

aren’t perfect, we’re just replaced. We are losing people due to treatable issues. It should not

take an industry shut down for stagehands to be able to see their doctors. We need help and we

need it now.


In my research, I learned that many treatment protocols are “cut” from the broader world and

then “pasted” to apply to our industry’s workers. I argue that such an approach too often does

not deliver appropriate help to those needing it. “There’s no business like show business” and I

argue that we need industry-specific programs and resources for stagehands and other

entertainment workers – based on our needs. That’s work I wish to pursue, and I’d like your

support. Stagehands deserve to live their lives, not just survive them.


Sources:

NYCdata | Culture. (2019). Retrieved June 18, 2022, from

https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/culture/broadway-economics.htm


Truman, K. (2021). COVID-19: Shining a Light on the Mental Health of Entertainment Workers.

CUNY.



11 views0 comments