Restrictions introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic happened quickly in Australia and they hit hard, exacting a severe toll on the entire arts and entertainment industry, from the major arts companies to freelance artists.

Mental health among entertainment workers was already fragile compared to the general population. A 2016 report from Entertainment Assist and Victoria University found that suicide attempts were more than double, while members of road crews contemplated suicide almost nine times more than the general population during the previous year. Moderate to severe anxiety was found to be 10 times higher among entertainment workers, while symptoms of depression were five times higher.

Unsurprisingly, the number of people visiting the website of the Arts Wellbeing Collective – an Arts Centre Melbourne initiative promoting positive mental health and wellbeing in the performing arts sector – has soared during the COVID-19 crisis.

Photograph © John Gollings

Since the Arts Wellbeing Collective (AWC) was officially launched in 2018, after research in 2016 and a pilot program in 2017, it has seen two big spikes in visitation: the first in July 2019 when its 24/7 phone Helpline was introduced, and the second in March 2020 as a result of the coronavirus lockdown.

“It was so fast and the impact was so enormous right from day one, with stories of people losing their jobs and their bookings, and unfortunately a lot of these artists are falling through the cracks financially as well [by not qualifying for] the government support, so it’s been a very hard difficult time for people,” says Claire Spencer, Arts Centre Melbourne’s CEO.

“There has been a lot of media about the financial difficulties that artists are facing. I think that’s well understood. But we are also seeing the impact that it is having on their emotional wellbeing and their mental wellbeing  – and thank god we have got the Arts Wellbeing Collective. When we conceived it back in 2016 we didn’t think for a minute it would be being used by the industry to support them through a pandemic but it’s proven to be a very useful platform. We have created some new content and we are seeing a big increase in visits to the Arts Wellbeing Collective website; they have increased more than threefold in March, and that is still increasing.”

“We’ve also doubled the number of people who have signed up for the eNews and updates, but what’s interesting is that the use of the telephone helpline has remained steady so we are worried that barriers to seeking help might actually have increased,” says Spencer.

Speculating on what those barriers might be, Spencer suggests: “the stigma of being out of work, the shame perhaps of having to sign on to get social security for the first time, sharing space with other people while you are in isolation so there is no privacy to make that kind of call. We are worried about that, so we have started to think how can we overcome some of those barriers, and we will be rolling out campaigns over the next few weeks, very specifically designed to address these challenges.”

The AWC website now has a section called “Looking after your mental health during COVID-19”, which is full of simple, practical tips. There are useful podcasts, and a video featuring performers including Greta Bradman, Lisa McCune, Martina Prior, Bert LaBonte and Stephen Curry among others talking about mental health.

Claire Spencer. Photograph © Mark Gambino

Spencer says that they are developing new content about becoming more flexible in creating work, and about immediate coping mechanisms to help when you are feeling overwhelmed. They are also working with a network of psychologists about what the future content needs to be as restrictions begin to lift. “I think that being reactive is really important at this time,” she says.

“There is so much on social media. It’s great that all of these online communities have been formed and they can be helpful in their own right but I think sometimes there can be mixed messages in those. So if you’re an artist in isolation do you create or do you not create? Do I do online content? I feel pressured to perform but I don’t know how to do it… So [we’re looking at] how to give people some tools and strategies to work through that process of what do I do right now, today.”

Spencer believes it is important to give people hope. “You can get caught in a cycle reading about the negative impact of COVID-19 on the sector – and there is absolutely no denying that the impact has been enormous – but I think sometimes you have got to break that cycle and suck yourself out of those social media discussions because they can really have an ongoing impact on how you are feeling, particularly if you are constantly bombarding yourself with negativity. So we are trying to start to think about how we can introduce a dialogue about getting people back to work, and how can we do that safely, to give people a sense that this will pass. It’s terrible at the moment but [we need to look how we can] get as many people through this as possible and out the other end, and returning to sustainable practice.”

Spencer believes that no-one in the arts will come out of COVID-19 “unscathed”. “We need to acknowledge that and recognise that, and use this opportunity to think about the industry that we want to create on the other side, and [see if] there are ways to make being in this sector less financially vulnerable but also less emotionally vulnerable as well. I don’t know what the answer is but I think now is the time for us, particularly for leaders in the sector, to say this just isn’t good enough, we need to do something structurally about the sector to ensure we’re stronger on the other side of this,” she says.

Like every other arts leader, Spencer is looking at the road to recovery and the challenges ahead as venues eventually reopen. “It’s the billion dollar question at the moment as to when you are going to be able to get people into the venues. And then will they come back? That consumer sentiment is so important. I have days when I feel brilliantly optimistic and moments when you feel, ‘this is a nightmare’,” she admits, “but I think we’ve all just got to be determined and courageous and listen to what audiences are telling us and get those venues open as soon as we can.”

Arts Centre Melbourne closed its doors in mid-March and has announced that it will be closed until June 30. This date will be reassessed if necessary.

“Everything between now and then has been cancelled, but obviously we are talking to people [scheduled to perform] in the period immediately following that to get a sense of where people are at and what they are going to want to do. We’ll approach it very much in partnership with our presenters. I think it’s going to be one of those things that needs all the sector to come together and really collaborate on a very deep level to get everyone up and running as soon as possible,” says Spencer.

A key part of the process will be persuading audiences to return. “There is quite interesting research coming out of the US at the moment about what would increase peoples’ confidence to come back, and we are working with Creative Victoria at the moment on some local data collection along the same lines,” says Spencer.

“A vaccine or a proven treatment are the things that will increase people’s confidence most, but in the absence of those things what can we do? Some of it is simple – really visible cleaning and hygiene and hand sanitiser. We were doing a lot of those things in the week before we closed. So [we are paying] constant vigilance and listening to what our audiences are telling us, and watching how that sentiment shifts over time.”

“I am desperate to get back into a theatre, and I don’t think I’m alone in that,” says Spencer. “I think a lot of people are reflecting on what they are missing. There is something about that collective experience of being together in an audience, and the collective gasp and the applause. You can watch content digitally but you don’t have that experience. The big puzzle for us is how do you create that experience of being together while physical distancing and also working with the potential limits on the number of people gathering, so that’s the big conundrum at the moment.”

More information about the Arts Wellbeing Collective