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Hollywood’s Mental Health Reckoning Has Arrived

As a seeming epidemic of suicides pummel the entertainment world, leaders and companies are responding with innovative answers to help erase the stigma around mental illness and provide help: "I’ve seen the pain and devastation it causes."


In January 2017, 51-year-old U.K.-based locations manager Michael Harm — whose credits included the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise — took his own life in a London hotel room. Shortly before, Harm sent a note to a friend in the industry describing his work as “one of the loneliest jobs on a film,” one that came with “no HR,” and urged more care on film sets.

In the three years since, a tragic procession of suicides have shaken the film, television and music industries, including those of host and chef Anthony Bourdain, manager Jill Messick, comic Brody Stevens, Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington, The Prodigy frontman Keith Flint and DJ Avicii. This year opened with news that Ugly Betty creator Silvio Horta, 45, had taken his own life.

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Suicides — often precipitated by mental health struggles — are rising. In 2017, the U.S. rate was 14 per 100,000 people, up 33 percent from 1999. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 35. According to the CDC, the highest female suicide rate from 2012 to 2015 occurred in the combined fields of arts, design, entertainment, sports and media. And the World Health Organization states that around one in four people will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

Mental-health stressors can be especially intense for younger workers in Hollywood, says UTA board member Tracey Jacobs: “The pressure to perform, coupled with the intense proliferation of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, has affected young people in a way that many of my peers did not experience in their careers. Those factors can be overwhelming and often toxic.”

L.A.-based psychotherapist Ira Israel, author of the book How to Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re an Adult, believes that anxiety and depression are especially prevalent in entertainment “because the stakes are so high. The industry attracts highly competitive people who believe they are playing a zero-sum game, and the spoils of war — cars, homes, offices — are excessively conspicuous. The power games and exploitation in Hollywood foment countless afflictions and addictions.”

Adds Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell School of Medicine and the author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, “Many — particularly young adults — are experiencing anxiety or depression, and Hollywood is filled with many young adults. But there are particular pressures associated with celebrity, or striving for celebrity. There is a constant concern that one won’t get that next opportunity, and fame is very fleeting. There is intense focus on physical appearance, making aging — which is inevitable — the enemy. This focus creates a lot of insecurity. Constant scrutiny, inability to have failures or mistakes be private, vocal judgment by others, feelings of never being enough are all highly stressful, and chronic stress can lead to anxiety or depression.”

Hollywood, though, is making strides in sensitively portraying mental health in storylines and pairing projects with awareness campaigns and resources for viewers, as TV shows as diverse as ABC’s A Million Little Things, HBO’s Euphoria, MTV’s Teen Mom, VH1’s Black Ink Crew: Chicago and HBO’s comedy special The Great Depresh have done. And stars such as Taraji P. Henson, Lady Gaga and Kristen Bell are speaking out about their mental health challenges, with some starting foundations and campaigns focusing on the cause (including Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Henson’s Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation and Supergirl actor Chris Wood’s awareness initiative IDONTMIND). In the music industry, Live Nation, WME and management company Friends at Work announced in October that they are teaming up with Cornell’s widow, Vicky Cornell, to launch Tour Support, a nonprofit focused on mental-health support for the touring community.

But within Hollywood, companies haven’t offered much beyond the basics — typically three free counseling sessions through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Some have upped the benefit, including Hulu (six free in-person sessions per year), Netflix (eight), NBCUniversal (10) and Snap (up to 16). ViacomCBS, Sony and WarnerMedia have EAP counselors available on site at some offices.

But the severity of the issues seems to be awakening Hollywood to the fact that it needs to do more in its own ranks, especially given that these are businesses where the most precious capital is brain power. “Mental health should be a priority for all of us,” says Mandeville Films’ David Hoberman, who suffered from OCD and depression in his childhood. “We need to do anything we can in Hollywood to discuss it and create exposure.” Adds Jacobs: “I’ve experienced mental health issues within my own family and have seen the pain and devastation it causes. Like cancer, mental illness is a serious disease that needs to be treated. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma.”

In England, colleagues of Harm took his words as a rallying cry and approached the U.K.’s Cinema and Television Benevolent Fund, now rebranded as the Film and TV Charity. That led to the launch of The Looking Glass, the U.K.’s first industrywide survey of the well-being of its workers in film and TV. A recent study estimated that the cost of mental health issues to the country’s entertainment sector is more than $300 million annually, through employees not turning up for work, not performing or leaving their roles. Initial results painted a more alarming picture than had been expected, with 87 percent of respondents reporting that they had experienced mental health issues (the U.K.’s average is 65 percent). “We needed to do something to understand the underlying cause of those issues,” says Film and TV Charity CEO Alex Pumfrey, who describes the initial survey results as revealing a “mental health crisis.” In February, it will publish the full report alongside a plan of action.

In the U.S., companies are enacting diverse programs to address the issue, spurred by younger workers increasingly wanting wellness solutions in the workplace.

Employee-Led Groups Two companies are leading the way by fostering inclusive employee-resource groups. At Verizon Media (which includes Yahoo and AOL), the three-year-old Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group, supports workers with ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder and other challenges. Its mission is to create a welcoming space for “minds of all kinds” in the workplace, according to the company. “I have ADHD,” says the group’s founder, Margaux Joffe, director of accessibility marketing. “I knew there had to be other people dealing with other issues — [things] that historically have not been talked about in the workplace.” The group has done in-house awareness campaigns, has dedicated Slack channels, and counts more than 300 members in 35 offices. “They know if something comes up, they can connect with others,” she says. A similar group, Mental Health @ Netflix, serves as a resource at the streamer. Its efforts have included sponsoring a conversation with other employee-resource groups at Netflix about cultural stigmas within the mental-health space.

Tech Solutions Hollywood companies also are turning to digital platforms to help. ViacomCBS and Snap give complimentary access to meditation app Headspace, while Hulu and UTA employees can access free virtual appointments with mental health specialists through parenting app Maven. NBCU offers GuidanceResources Online for 24/7 help with things like relationships, work, children, financial issues, general wellness and more. Apple recently launched its own mental health app called Sanvello that includes community forums, self-help modules and coaching. And Pixar uses a new mental health benefits platform called Modern Health (Jared Leto is an investor) that includes online assessments, a meditation library and therapist access. “We take a preventative and interactive approach,” says Modern Health CEO Alyson Friedensohn. “Part of the problem with EAP is you call an 800 number when you are in crisis, and they will give you a list of in-network therapists, but as you know, most therapists don’t accept insurance — that puts all the legwork on you.” Snap works with mental-health provider platform Lyra Health, which offers video therapy and coaching.

Mental Health First Aid On Oct. 10, Comedy Central launched its Mental Health First Aid at Work program, which “teaches participants how to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of a mental health issue.” More than 75 employees have taken part. Verizon Media has also instituted Mental Health First Aid training for company leaders.

On-Set Trauma Counselors Ava DuVernay hired on-set counselors while filming 2019’s When They See Us. “I did take advantage of it. The need for people to talk to, to help process some of the scenes was very necessary,” says actor Michael K. Williams.

Workplace Programming Last spring, Glenn Close, founder of the Bring Change to Mind nonprofit, and nephew Calen Pick, who has schizo-affective disorder, visited Apple’s Cupertino campus for a talk on mental health, available to all employees globally. Other companies that are programming mental-wellness events are Endeavor (which offers meditation, yoga and stress management sessions in five offices); Hulu (meditation, yoga and quiet rooms); Paradigm (guided meditation sessions); Snap (journaling and aromatherapy workshops); and Scooter Braun’s SB Projects (which sponsors Mindful Fridays for employees). “It makes mental wellness just a part of what we do,” says SB Projects vp philanthropy Shauna Nep. In NYC, ViacomCBS hosts an annual weeklong wellness festival complete with therapy puppies and a few times a week its on-site Wellness Studio becomes a “Zen Zone” so employees can practice mindfulness, meditate or just relax in a quiet space, while at UTA, Jacobs has brought in professionals like Dr. Drew Pinsky for in-house discussions. Says Jacobs: “We’ve provided a safe space where people felt comfortable to share personal stories and offer support to their peers.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.