Some stressed film crews are receiving mental health support

In the summer of 2021, when producer Joanna Lurie was planning to produce “The Son,” an upcoming drama from Academy Award-winning writer-director Florian Zeller, she knew the stress levels would be exponentially high for the cast and crew. They had to deal with strict COVID-19 safety protocols and the film’s difficult subject matter: suicide.

So the London-based producer did something unorthodox: she arranged to hire a company that would provide confidential virtual therapy sessions to anyone on set who needed them while filming in New York, London, and France. The program has been very popular, and she plans to repeat it in other productions.

“We just had to make absolutely sure that in the process of making a movie about mental health that we really cared about the cast and crew who were going to deal with this, which is a very sensitive subject,” said Lowry. Producer at See-Saw Films. “I think it’s something we’ll see a lot of.”

No matter the topic, film and television sets can be stressful and dangerous workplaces. The pandemic added a host of concerns as actors and crews returned to work in the face of strict safety protocols like testing, masking, and social distancing. The streaming boom put more pressure on film workers as production of new shows soared and crews worked longer hours to keep up with demand, leading to increased burnout and heightened labor tensions.

As a result, more producers are considering offering therapy services, either on set or virtually, to help those on set deal with the stress of the job.

Masked man conversing with blonde woman wearing red in group

Florian Zeller and Laura Dern on the set of “The Son.”

(Rica Garton)

Among the beneficiaries is Solas Mind, the British company hired by See-Saw Films for Sony’s hit movie “The Son.” The company has developed a digital platform to allow crew members to schedule therapy sessions, and has worked with studios like Apple TV and NBC Universal. With a team of 30 counselors and psychotherapists, Solas Mind is looking to expand into the United States and Canada to meet producer demand for its services.

“That feeling of isolation where people are away from their families, locked in hotel rooms, all the cool stuff about the industry, the social aspect, is gone,” said Sarah McCaffrey, the company’s founder. “There was a huge demand for people just to be able to talk to someone at the end of the workday.”

While it’s typical to hear about producers catering to every whim of A-list stars, the crews often get a little underwhelming.

And despite the high costs, some producers recognize the benefit of offering therapy services as an added benefit to attracting crew members.

“Productions are longer, I think the budgets are narrower, so the timelines are narrower, which leads to all those knock-on effects of overworked people, which leads to ineffective results,” said McCaffrey, a psychotherapist and former actor.

The International Theater Employees Alliance, which represents professional workers in film and television, supports the push to add more therapists to productions.

“Providing more mental health resources and support for staff and anyone who needs them is a good thing,” said Jonas Loeb, a spokesperson for IATSE. He noted that the union has worked with the Motion Picture & Television Fund and other groups to offer mental health resources to crew members.

The use of healers on film sets is relatively uncommon, but there have been a few notable examples.

Georgia-based therapist Kim White has been brought on to helm the 2020 production of Amazon limited series “The Underground Railroad” to help the cast and crew deal with difficult subject matter on set.

“Studios and producers are becoming more aware of the pressures and pressures that are going on in our society in general, and they want to help their people involved with their project,” White said, adding that common issues clients bring up include stress from a gig work, financial insecurity, and separation anxiety.

After “Underground,” White also helped produce Amazon’s “The Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power,” said Core. He also participated in Amazon’s “Gen V” spin-off.

Last year, Amazon serviced therapy at six shows and plans to expand that number in 2023, said Jerome Core, Amazon Studios president of U.S. and global diversity, equity content, inclusion, and accessibility.

“If we get to the place where people walk away from our groups feeling respected, most heard, most seen, we know if we get back there, they will choose us as their highest priority for their jobs,” he said.

The use of mental health services is widespread on film sets in the United Kingdom

Since 2021, the BFI has secured a program that funds Wellbeing Facilitators, who provide advice on stress and mental health issues, and help implement industry guidelines to prevent bullying, harassment and racism. BFI’s financing was expanded last year.

Wellbeing facilitators are not therapists, but may refer staff members to qualified psychotherapists, mediate conflicts and coach newly promoted crew members or those supervising a team for the first time.

McCaffrey, whose company is also receiving funding from the UK government as part of a new mental health initiative, said that, so far, there is nothing comparable in the United States for independent crews. Some companies offer employee assistance programs, but they are often not available to freelance crew members.

She launched her business in 2020 and today works in more than 80 productions. McCaffrey declined to disclose her company’s fees but said pricing depends on the level of support each production needs.

She said many clients struggle to balance home life with very long days in production for months at a time without breaks.

“It’s very difficult to have a work-life balance while working such hours,” McCaffrey said.

Demand for experienced crews has been high since production resumed in 2020, and offering services like free mental health care to independent workers makes producers more attractive to employers.

When Karl Liegis began production on Apple TV’s “The Essex Serpent” at the height of the pandemic in 2020, he knew he wanted to provide mental health support to his crew in the UK.

Liegis has been named head of production at 60Forty Films, which has an exclusive production deal with Apple TV and has committed to providing Solas Mind for all of its future productions, such as Idris Elba’s upcoming thriller “Hijack,” he said.

“The competition now is between production companies trying to get a good, experienced crew,” said Leges. “I think the reason employers hire me now is because they want to be attractive to the employee.”

For those in the non-fiction film industry, the nonprofit American Documentary has funded an initiative called DocuMentality, a research project looking at the main mental health challenges found in the sector, according to the project’s UK founder, Rebecca Day.

Day, a documentary filmmaker trained as a psychologist, in 2018 started her own UK-based therapy company called Film in Mind. Her work includes psychological counseling, as well as workshops and speaking events.

They help filmmakers solve communication problems—often between directors and producers—or navigate difficult topics and financial pressures in the industry.

“It doesn’t seem very sustainable,” Day said of the current crisis facing documentary filmmakers. “There’s a lot of money around, but it’s not reaching the self-employed who are under-resourced and overworked.”

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