Maintaining good mental health can be challenging for anyone, but actors face certain difficulties relating to their profession. Periods of unemployment can result in financial stress. Audition failure can feel like personal rejection. And even if you are having some success and winning roles, sometimes the jobs aren’t creatively challenging enough to keep you happy.
Every actor must take measures to protect their mental health.
1. Eat well. As an actor, your voice and body are your instrument. So: feed it well. Be aware of your eating habits, without obsessing. Actors performing at night can be tempted by fast food on the way to the theatre, or may skip dinner before a show. If this is you, have a good breakfast and lunch packed with nutrients. Go for fresh fruit and vegetables, lean meats and carbs, water over soft drink and juices, and find snacks that are low in sugar and high in protein to give you energy through to the next meal.
2. Sleep well. This, too, can be a challenge for actors performing at night. The adrenalin rush of performance can stay with you when it’s really time for bed. So, have a sleep hygiene routine to help you wind down – get off screens, have a warm drink, read a book quietly, listen to soothing music, shower - whatever works. If, on the other hand, you have to get up for an early morning shoot, plan ahead. Be disciplined about getting to bed on time the night before. Send visitors home, set yourself a “time for bed” alarm, grab an early night – your brain will love you for it.
3. Exercise. This is the best natural mood booster that there is, because of the release of dopamine that results. Whether you just walk regularly, or have a more structured exercise program, exercise ensures your mind is clearer, you’ll sleep better, and your mood will improve.
4. Have a coach or counsellor. If you know you’re struggling with mental health, it’s time to check in with a professional. There are many options to choose from: online chat counselling, telephone counselling, face-to-face counselling, as well as classes and workshops. Alternatively, a life coach may be able to help you set some goals. Taking the step to get help can be daunting – but treat it as an investment in your career as an actor. Be aware, too, that you may need to “shop around” for the right helper – find someone you want to work with. A practitioner will not take it personally if you say that they’re not right counsellor for you. They know that client rapport is important for healing.
5. Have some other (non-acting) work. Some actors falsely believe you have to give up everything (including a regular income) to pursue an acting career. An actor’s life is project- to-project: you might get a voiceover one week, then a commercial the next, then a guest spot on TV – then nothing for three or four months. What do you do the rest of the time? You have another job. An income gives you self-confidence and stability until you get your big (or bigger) break. (Also, we have a tendency to define ourselves by our occupation, but that’s not always psychologically helpful. Don’t wrap up your whole identity in acting – for the sake of your mental health, acknowledge that your influence in the world extends beyond acting - into other fields and personal relationships.) Save up your annual leave from your day job so you can take time off to audition or participate in a project. But make sure you pace yourself – if you don’t get a decent holiday break one year, factor in other forms of downtime to rest and regroup.
6. Educate yourself financially. In this industry, think of yourself as a business person as well as an actor. Alleviate financial stress by learning about money and how it works. You must understand income and expenses, agent’s commissions, invoicing, and other business terms. Books, websites and courses can teach you the basics. Second to this, become a saver. Several actors have told me they wished they hadn’t spent all their money when they first became successful. (Remember, success in one movie or TV show doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hired again immediately afterwards.) At a time when they could have bought a house or established some longer-term security, they didn’t! So if you do hit the big time, plan to alleviate the possibility of future financial stress by putting some of those earnings aside.
7. Have a creative project. Some acting jobs are over in less than a day: the TV commercial, the voiceover, the MC gig. While they may pay well, they may not stretch you creatively. So have something creative on the go. Write a one-person show for yourself. Join a choir. Start a play reading group with other actors. Find something stimulating that will allow you to express your creativity, even when the work you’re doing, doesn’t. Creative activity is good for you and will lift your spirits if you’re feeling low.
8. Keep up your old friends. To protect your mental health, a social support network is vital. When you are focused on building a career, it’s easy to leave behind the friends who know you best. It’s great to have actor friends – because they will understand your highs and lows – but it’s also great to have people who knew you before all this started. One of the most powerful, scientifically proven methods for alleviating depression and other mental illness is human connection. So, if you’re feeling down – reach out. This is a big call when you’re low, but it reminds you that the world isn’t only happening inside your head. Make contact with a friend, catch up for a coffee or a beer, get out the board games – whatever floats your boat! Don’t forget to reach out to family too; connect with anyone who reminds you what it means to be alive and loved.
Combine these eight methods and you’ll be in a better place mentally and emotionally for your next role. Don’t wait till you feel yourself sliding downhill before you take action. Instead, work these things into your life today.
Written by Elizabeth Avery Scott, CEO and co-founder of Perform Australia. She is also a playwright and an actor’s guidance counsellor.