Although the notion of musicians and actors suffering for their art persists, rising Kiwi pop singer Josie Moon says her depression actually got in the way of writing and creating. However, much is being done in the New Zealand entertainment industry to safeguard mental health. George Fenwick reports.

While she pieced together the Basement Theatre's spring season, programming director Gabrielle Vincent noticed something unusual. "More than 50 per cent of the submissions that were handed into us were addressing mental health. That's enormous."

The theatre turns over between 20-30 shows each season, with roughly two shows a week. Vincent, 31, who has worked in the arts for 10 years and at Basement for four, found the rise of mental health work weighing on her mind. Was it a reflection of an industry in crisis?

"Part of me says 'yes'," she says, "but it could also be the fact that I think New Zealand has been trying to empower people to discuss mental health for quite a few years."

Mitch James. Photo / Stephen Parker
Mitch James. Photo / Stephen Parker

Vincent's observation extends to other arts. Kiwi singer Mitch James recently wrote about his struggle with depression and anxiety, slamming New Zealand's "toxic culture of silence and shame". Broods' Caleb Nott has said he found himself in a dark hole; "I didn't even notice until I came out of it," he said.

Each artist has described a different journey, but all have returned to the same thread: their music provided a tool to process internal pain.

Broods' Caleb Nott (right). Photo / Supplied
Broods' Caleb Nott (right). Photo / Supplied

Personal storytelling is nothing new to creative people, but the rise of conversations about mental health is something Kiwis are observing nationwide. Our mental health is reaching a crisis point: The number of suicides is at a record level, and Lifeline is now receiving six calls a day from people in severe distress – double the amount it received three years ago. Meanwhile, the expert panel heading the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction is preparing to deliver its recommendations.

Globally, conversations about mental health have been elevated within popular culture this year. The second season of controversial Netflix series 13 Reasons Why arrived, accompanied by research that suggested the first had prompted discussions about mental health among teens. Pop star Ariana Grande spoke candidly this year about her battles with anxiety and how those experiences shaped her new album Sweetener; similarly, Lady Gaga has used the A Star is Born press tour this year to talk about her struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after revealing she was sexually assaulted at 19.

Ariana Grande. Photo / AP
Ariana Grande. Photo / AP

The list of actors and musicians whose lives ended too soon after struggles with mental health is endless (think Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Linkin Park's Chester Bennington and INXS' Michael Hutchence). In September, Lifeline appealed for donations to help cover running costs by releasing a remake of Janis Joplin's Piece of My Heart for its campaign The 72 Club, a play on the 27 Club of famous artists who died too young, including Joplin, Cobain and Winehouse.

MusicHelps, a charity of which Kiwi singers Lorde and Neil Finn are patrons that assists music people experiencing hardship and illness, has started crunching the results of its 2018 bi-annual survey which measures wellbeing in the music industry. Preliminary findings indicate that the diagnosed incidence of depression, bi-polar and anxiety disorder is "several orders of magnitude higher than in the general population", says foundation general manager Peter Dickens.

Almost a fifth of respondents admitted to "hardly ever" visiting a health professional when they experienced health and wellbeing issues. The same proportion reported one of the reasons was they don't have confidence in health professionals or feel that they will be understood by them.

Dickens says creative people are expected to have a characteristic of "skinlessness" to be "able to take in everything that's going on around them, and then synthesise it into a product that the rest of us find really compelling or new or innovative".


"There's an increasing amount of literature that's showing that the more creative a person you are, the more vulnerable you are to mental health and wellbeing issues," says Dickens.

"It's that quality of skinlessness which, though helpful for songwriting, can leave them too open and raw; [they] don't have the layers of armour they need to resist some of the challenges that you face as you go through life."

It's a common refrain to hear that "music is my therapy" — but the journey to wellbeing is dependent on the individual, and must be done with care, says Dickens. Can turning one's struggles into art substitute professional help?

"I've heard before from music people that the music that's made when they're at their lowest end isn't their best work — that it comes from a moment of realisation about where they were. There has to be a way that you can visit the places you need to visit, and then come back from them successfully and healthily."

That notion that artists should suffer for their art was recently challenged by a study from Brandeis University in Massachusetts in 2015, which looked at the works of great painters such as Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso. It found a correlation between events of emotional turmoil in their lives and the artists' less recognisable, less enduring, lowest-selling works; in conclusion, suffering wasn't conducive to creativity.

But rising pop singer Josie Moon, 21, says she once heard a manager say people with depression were better musicians.

"That made me so angry, because it actually really hinders so much of your creativity. When you're in a really dark place, whether it's depression or anxiety or mental health where it's at the point where it debilitates you, it's not a romantic thing that makes your songs better. It actually gets in the way of writing and creating.


"If I get stuck, then I only end up writing really sad songs all the time and I can't be objectively creative with certain stuff. You should definitely put your health first. Music should be part of the healing process, but it should come from a positive place, or a place of growth."

Josie Moon. Photo / Lizzie Marie Atter
Josie Moon. Photo / Lizzie Marie Atter

While in a dark place, Moon taught herself to record and produce electronic music on her own, which offered a clear path of achievable goals and self-improvement. "It gave me something to latch on to. When you have that slope of learning, it can be really encouraging — you feel so much less useless."

Actor and writer Saraid Cameron, 27, found a solo show she debuted this year seemed only to reopen wounds. Drowning in Milk was a confessional piece about her experience growing up as a mixed-race, first-generation South Asian woman in New Zealand. After Cameron found herself performing in front of predominantly white crowds, the show eventually took a toll.

"There were lots of great conversations that I had with people from communities similar to my own but often I felt like a bit of a freak and highly aware of my differences," she says. "Because the show was literally just me recounting mostly quite upsetting stories or experiences from my life, I often ended up mulling them over more than I would have liked to after performing.

"I loved what the show opened up for some of the audience members, but I'll be thinking very long and hard before I make anything like Milk again. Drowning in your own traumatic experiences in front of people who look like those who perpetuated them isn't easy."

Industry leaders are establishing new modes of protection.

Director Eleanor Bishop and actress Karin McCracken's shows Jane Doe and Yes Yes Yes reflected on consent and rape culture in New Zealand. Part of their budget was allocated to clinical supervision in the form of a therapist.


McCracken encountered the concept while working for Wellington Rape Crisis and the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, where all employees are offered supervision paid for by the employer. "It's a way to emotionally access assistance in a job that's very emotional," she says.

Karin McCracken in Yes Yes Yes. Photo / Jinki Cambronero
Karin McCracken in Yes Yes Yes. Photo / Jinki Cambronero

They introduced it to their work after taking Jane Doe to Edinburgh in 2017 — a month-long run that affected McCracken's health.

"I became more anxious than I usually was, I was having bad dreams, things like that," she says. "When you start thinking about trauma or stories that you tell about trauma, they start to intersect in how you think of your own life in ways that are not true to reality — so a rising sense of anxiety would be an example. Some motor function skills even, lots of stumbling, falling over things, being clumsier, less spatially aware."

Since working with the therapist, McCracken feels more comfortable. "It makes me feel more equipped, and to have someone remind me they're really normal responses, and here are some strategies that you can use."

Some artists are working to strip away the tension with audiences. The Basement Theatre lists trigger warnings for each show by the box office every night, as well as on its website. Performer Victoria Abbott, whose solo show Run Rabbit deals with sexual assault, began each show by walking her audience through the process of leaving.

Victoria Abbott in Run Rabbit. Photo / Benny Joy Photography
Victoria Abbott in Run Rabbit. Photo / Benny Joy Photography

"The aim was to be very relaxed, and essentially to tell everyone else in the audience that it was fine if people left for whatever reason," she says. "I think it was really important that I went to the door, and opened the door, and walked the path that somebody would have to walk to leave.


"If you're hosting a dinner party, people can get up and go when they need to go. They're still your mates. I don't see why theatre should be any different.

"When you're talking about things that happen to one in three women and one in six men statistically, not to mention those outside the binary, the likelihood is somebody in the room is going to be connecting with the material on a very personal level. When you can see an audience member audibly breathe a sigh of relief, quietly, you know that you've done your job."

Theatre-maker and mental health worker Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho runs Taurima Vibes, a company that supports artists creating work based on their lived experiences of mental health. It is the main organisation behind the Atawhai Festival, coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week, which aims to start conversations around mental health and the power of performance.

"Anybody who has a piece of writing, whether it be dance or theatre, and they would like to explore how to put that story on stage, we give them a place to workshop in," says Tukiwaho. "We look at providing dramaturges [literary advisors], actors, directors, all the support they need.

"The process ... is specifically based around tikanga Māori, and how we approach every project is with manaakitanga — with the grounding of empowering purposefully, so to be as aware as possible of what we're doing to invite people in."

Theatre director Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho. Photo / Peter Meecham
Theatre director Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho. Photo / Peter Meecham

Tukiwaho has begun working with the Comedy Guild and Comedy Festival to help create support networks for comedians; he also worked alongside mental health organisation Changing Minds to create Whāriki Hauora, a koha-based peer support initiative offering sessions for people in the performing arts community.


Lucy-Mary Mulholland, 30, is an arts therapist who uses creativity with her clients to guide them through their emotions — anything from visual modes such as drawing and painting to physical modes like dance and movement. "It can be really helpful as a way of getting perspective," she says. "To be able to put something down on paper, or to actually use art materials as a way to make sense of what's going on in your world, it can be quite helpful to have something that just takes it out of your head."

While much of her work still includes talk therapy, the creative process bridges the gap for those struggling with communication.

"You see a kid have a tantrum? They're communicating with movement and sound," says Mulholland. "They're telling you how they're feeling because they can't put it into words."

Arts therapist Lucy-Mary Mulholland. Photo / supplied
Arts therapist Lucy-Mary Mulholland. Photo / supplied

She recently joined the Basement Theatre's Unseen:Unsaid series for a panel on "Self-help or self-harm — the borders of personal storytelling". For artists who mine their own experiences to create work, Mulholland says the arts can be a "powerful tool" — but the safety of everyone involved is paramount.

Making a living in the arts is challenging and often a barrier to wellbeing. Rapper Tom Scott's album Avantdale Bowling Club debuted at number one on the New Zealand albums chart (only losing the top spot to Ariana Grande), but he revealed in a series of tweets that the album left him in debt; "I've made a grand total of negative $14,000... There's no way to make a living in this country doing this."

It's a lifestyle that would be detrimental to anyone's health, says Mulholland.

"There's no job security, there's no one organisation that's constantly checking in with them ... they are actually put in working conditions that would make any human being incredibly stressed."


After Unseen:Unsaid, Mulholland started offering weekly group therapy sessions for artists, which lowers the cost. MusicHelps also offers a 24/7 helpline and free counselling sessions for people within the industry who are unable to afford the support they need.

But the greatest support, says Mulholland, can come from the public. She wants more people to recognise the value of art.

"The world really needs artists," she says. "Beyond just the creation of entertainment, arts brings so much value to our society, and I hope that this conversation is not about, 'what's wrong with the creative community in terms of mental health', but it's that ... there's so much more we can be doing to support the creative community."


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.


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