Can Acting Make You Mentally Unwell

Convener(s): Tom Wright

Participants: David Cottis, Alyn Gwyndaf, Alexis Terry, Hugh Hayes, Lucy Bradshaw, Victoria Dyson and some bumblebees.


Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

When I was an assistant director I accompanied an actress playing a rape victim to meet a rape counselor. Once she’d answered our questions she asked us, ‘How do you recreate this experience imaginatively every night and not have it affect you?’ We were both stumped – we’d never heard anyone ask that question before.


While it was agreed that acting could have lots of positive effects, can make you ‘mentally well’ that there were, as there are in any job, occupational risks. There were three main areas of interest: the life of an actor, the training and actually making a show.

It was noted that our society’s attitude to mental health is immensely unhelpful; don’t talk about it, because you won’t get offered work, etc.



Does the profession attract some people who are more mentally vulnerable? It was suggested that a lack of childhood love might draw some people to a profession that makes you the centre of attention. We don’t know of any research into this.

Actors are often in a subservient position; waiting for someone to offer them a job, and then when in work, aiming to please the director. This can lead to a lack of agency, the feeling of having control or influence in your life. A study showed that lower ranking civil service members died younger and had more stress-related conditions than high ranking staff; being low status is bad for your health.

We talked about the way that the belief of Talent Will Out can leave you depressed when life doesn’t work out the way you wanted; it’s your fault not bad luck (see Death of a Salesman.)

This lack of agency might also cause actors to take on projects for which they are psychologically unsuitable (i.e. someone who has experienced a trauma takes a role in which they will need to enact that trauma), or to be reticent to make directors aware of any psychological problems they are experiencing 

Positive steps include the idea of life-long training, taking responsibility for constantly attending classes and workshops. Also taking a more lead role in creating your own work.

There is also a conflation of professional and personal worth. ‘I didn’t get the role – I’m crap/worthless.’ Directors can help with this by providing clear feedback, as to why they were unsuitable for the role.

Another negative myth actors might buy into is the ‘Tortured Artists,’ – if I’m not suffering it’s not working. If we can collectively challenge this idea, and be really clear that there’s nothing wrong with leaving your character’s emotions behind at the end of a day and having a healthy life outside rehearsals/performing, that might help.



Drama school encourages actors to dig deep, but sometimes without offering proper support. On the other hand, one actor reported feeling very supported when the training brought up difficult things for her, and enabled her to work with and through them.

Training talks a lot about ‘Warm Up, ‘Entering Your Character’, ‘Emotional Access’, but much less about ‘Cool Down,’ ‘Stepping Away from Your Character’ and ‘Emotional Release/Resilience.


It was noted that the physical risks of acting are taken very seriously, warm ups, physios, knee pads. What psychological support do people need to be offered?

Actors (and rehearsals) work in different ways. Actors who develop a role from the inside out might be more emotionally vulnerable than those who are interested only in the external and what the audience sees.

The process of working on a show in general has an impact; ending a production can trigger a down, following the adrenalin high of performance. It was suggested that this could be addressed by acknowledging this collectively at the end of a run so that the actors don’t feel that they are alone/abnormal for having these feelings.

Performing a show can cause a lot of bleed between the character’s emotions and your own; this is not necessarily a bad thing – actors who perform being in love, falling in love, for example. Sometimes the expression/release of emotion can be cathartic/exhilarating. Problems occur when traumatic emotions are carried off the stage. Actors can contribute this by a gung-ho attitude to going deeper and deeper into emotions and carrying them around, ‘It makes me a better artist.’

Current closing rituals are focused on frivolity/alcohol consumption. If that works then great! Some suggested different rituals, like a simple five-minute meditation on your own body and the space around you, to ground you before leaving the theatre. Mark Rylance jumps up and down saying his own name, to get himself back into his own body.

In rehearsals, some report distress when rehearsing a scene and the day lefts with them stuck in the middle of a trauma.

In trauma therapy, there is the concept of Post-Traumatic Distress being stuck imaginatively/in your memory in the moment just before the trauma. Lots of therapies rehearse the traumatic moment, which can just make things worse. Possibly rehearsals can do the same thing? However, the latest idea in trauma work is that by playing through to the moment beyond, taking the story of the trauma through to, if not, ‘They lived happily after,’ at least, ‘They lived and other stuff happened,’ it can help heal the trauma. Similarly if a director takes responsibility for closing the work at the end of the day, allowing a scene to run to it’s end, or leading a cool down, it can help actors not to get ‘stuck’ in the traumatic moment of a scene.

We talked about stage fright and how this can lead to actors getting completely blocked/drying. All of Stanislavski’s work deals with his attempts to overcome this tendency in himself.

We talked about the director’s responsibility; that many go ‘This is Not Therapy,’ despite leading exercises to bring up deeply buried emotions in the actor. Part of creating a safe process might involve enabling actors to come forward when they are struggling. One director was quoted who sees his job as asking the actors each day, ‘How are you?’ so that they have the space to feedback if difficulties are occurring.

Trusting that a director will support you no matter what is apparently helpful. On the other hand directors need to resist the arrogance of assuming they can act as therapists!

If an actor taps into something and loses control in a rehearsal, it was suggested that acknowledging this and allowing that person to go through it is better than going, ‘Right, tea break, let’s pretend this isn’t happening,’ as this can stigmatize that actor’s emotions. 

Further reading/research included Frank Block, a choreographer who trained as an existential therapists and lecturers on creating a safe space for performers, and Nicky Flax, a director who’s very interested in these issues.

It was a fascinating discussion, if I missed off any important points please let me know! Also please get in touch if you have anything to add especially research or techniques; [email protected].