Hollywood slowdown taking mental health toll as TV, movie jobs scarce. 'It wears on me'

Illustration of a cloud partly covering a film reel
(Illustration by Jim Cooke / Los Angeles Times)

People across the entertainment industry rolled up their sleeves to get back to work after the strikes by writers and actors ended last year. Instead of taking off like a rocket, however, production has been slow to resume, yielding little to no job opportunities and taking a toll on workers' mental health.

Matthew Cwren, a working actor who has appeared in "The Blacklist, "NCIS: Los Angeles" and "Dynasty," has experienced this firsthand.

At the 20-year mark in his career in 2022, Cwren felt happy with the recurring acting opportunities and his successful side hustle of helping actors film audition tapes.

The following year, the quality and frequency of auditions Cwren was getting for his own roles gradually diminished before bottoming out. He also had a sharp decline in the number of clients he was assisting with self-taping.

Cwren has dealt with depression most of his life, but those feelings were exacerbated during the strike because he wasn't around others on a production, couldn't act, and for the first time had to seek financial assistance to purchase food.

He said the reality of his situation — that having years of experience and a good resume wasn't enough to land a role for reasons out of his control — "was really hard for me to accept."

"It's very hard to find another industry that matches the unpredictability that comes with the entertainment industry," said Michael Wetter, clinical psychologist.

Rejection is common, and temporary periods of unemployment between projects aren't unheard of, Wetter said, but there was always an opportunity in the film or TV business to pursue. That doesn't hold true now.

This uncertainty is weighing on Amber Haley, a set decorator for productions such as "Insecure," "Barry" and "Modern Family." She's been able to interview for only three shows in the last 15 months, all projects she didn't land.

Left without a project, Haley's team members haven't been able to meet their basic needs, and "it wears on me," she told The Times. Haley said she feels responsible for finding a job so that her crew don't lose their homes, cars and livelihoods.

The Times spoke with crew members who construct and light sets, script supervisors and grips who described this time as bleak because they haven't been able to work.

Read more:Hollywood crews in 'crisis': 'Everyone's just in panic mode' as jobs decline

Some feared that years without work will cut their pension because they've been unable to find gigs on productions covered by union contracts and are closing in on retirement. These individuals are also in danger of losing their healthcare benefits because they haven't done enough work in recent years to be eligible under union rules.

Their union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, is in negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a new contract, which is another factor in the production slowdown.

Many people either are thinking of leaving the industry or have already done so. For others, waiting for a production to finally ramp up while juggling side hustles to make ends meet is bringing them to a breaking point.

A large group of demonstrators carrying picket signs that read, "SAG-AFTRA on Strike!"
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

How is the instability affecting workers?

"When you don't know if you're going to actually be able to pursue the very thing that you have made sacrifices for historically, and now are faced with the fruit of this bleak premise of the future, it really takes a significant toll on that individual," Wetter said.

The toll can manifest in feelings of anxiety or a depressed mood as well as affecting the body physically, such as causing stomach or head aches, a loss of sleep or unhealthy eating habits, said Jennifer Jorge, director of community social services for the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

Read more:Financial aid is available for film and TV workers struggling post-strike. Here's where to look

The feelings of sadness and despair and of being overwhelmed are normal, given all the obstacles this community has faced, Jorge said.

"I think where I start to get concerned, as a practitioner, is when we start to talk about the acuity of how intense those things are," she said.

The unfortunate reality is that people have lost relationships, broken their sobriety, become ill or lost their housing because of the stress of being out of work and not being able to practice their craft, Jorge said.

Fortunately, help is available, including the social services provided by the Motion Picture and Television Fund and other industry-focused organizations, national helplines and county health departments, which can point you to local resources.

There are also ways to care for your mental health proactively and recognize when it's time to seek help.

Read more:How can film and TV workers cope with Hollywood slowdown? Financial experts offer tips

How to cope with these challenges

Mental health professionals shared these tips on how to check on your mental health and fend off emerging problems.

Give yourself space for self-reflection. When you're going through a challenging period, ask yourself if you're eating in a balanced way, getting enough sleep, being physically active and giving yourself time to engage with friends or family. You should also take note if others have expressed concerns about you.

Establish other creative outlets. If you're not able to practice your craft, find another way to continue flexing your creative muscles. And look for opportunities to create with peers — this will help foster and grow your community.

Have a mind-set of flexibility. If you want to become a film actor, ask yourself, "How do I cultivate that skill of acting in creative ways?" You might find you can do theater, start a YouTube channel, join or form a troupe, or venture into podcasting.

Create small wins. Set achievable daily goals that can boost your mental health, such as making sure to take a walk outside or call a friend. These goals can even be designed to support your career — for example, if your daily calls help build your network of industry contacts and mentors.

Recognize when you need more than just self-help. A telltale sign is when your feelings impair your basic abilities.If you start having trouble getting out of bed, are not eating regularly or are feeling physically off, it may be time to reach out to social services, a counselor or a therapist.

When seeking therapy, be honest about what you can invest in yourself. The ways to find mental health services include checking your insurance company's provider network or mental health program, searching for a therapist through an online directory, and reaching out to your county mental health department for affordable options. Explore all things that are available to you that you can afford, but don't settle for something that just doesn't feel right. Make sure your mental health provider is a match.

Finding the right therapist

If you decide to search through an online directory of therapists, it will help to understand what the licenses mentioned there mean. A practitioner listed as a psychologist with a PhD can test and conduct assessments for cognitive issues, ADHD or personality disorders.

There are also therapists with master's degrees who have different licenses: LPC (licensed professional counselor), LMFT (licensed marriage and family therapist), LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). Each typically discloses what they specialize in — for example, trauma, anxiety, couples therapy, depression and cultural identity.

You can confirm that a therapist is licensed — meaning the practitioner has at least a certain number of hours of clinical experience — by checking the California Department of Consumer Affairs' searchable database. The database can also tell you whether the therapist's license has been suspended and whether the therapist has been reprimanded.

Finding a licensed mental health practitioner who's a good fit for your needs can take some trial and error, in the form of a few consultations with different therapists. Don't feel obligated to stick with the first therapist you meet.

Wetter said he believes it would be a mistake to deny how challenging it is right now for workers as the entertainment industry transforms.

He would define it as a period of transition, not termination. In other words, the public will always need the entertainment industry.

"Don't give up on it and don't give in to despair, but please make sure that you take care of yourself," Wetter said. When your mind and your mental health are compromised, he added, so is your creativity.

Read more:Use these mental health resources to help yourself — or anyone else

Mental Health Resources

National and statewide mental health resources that are accessible online or by making a phone call include the following:

  • The Motion Picture and Television Fund offers assistance in vetting mental health resources for you or a family member. It also provides information on how to access state and federal benefits. For adults under 65 years old, call the intake line at (323) 634-3888. Adults over 65 can call (323) 634-3866.

  • The Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation provides financial aid and supportive counseling to people who work for theatrical exhibition and distribution companies and their vendors. To learn more and request an application for financial aid, call (877) 756-9455, Ext. 2390 or fill out the online contact form.

  • The SAG-AFTRA Foundation provides emergency financial assistance and disaster relief to eligible members. The foundation is receiving an extremely high volume of emergency aid applications and asks that you read all eligibility requirements before applying online. If you have questions, reach out to assistance@sagaftra.foundation.

  • The Entertainment Community Fund, formerly the Actors Fund, offers a variety of social service programs, including counseling, support groups and emergency financial assistance. To view the offerings, create an account on the fund's website.

  • For Los Angeles County area-specific assistance, visit the county's Department of Mental Health website. For immediate resources and support, call the county's 24/7 helpline at (800) 854-7771.

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers around-the-clock access to trained crisis workers at your local 988 Lifeline network crisis center. It's accessible across the U.S. through a three-digital dialing code, 988.

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) is for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. The 24/7 call center can be accessed by dialing (800) 662-4357.

  • The California Peer-Run Warm Line is a nonemergency resource available 24/7 to anyone in California seeking mental and emotional support. By calling (855) 845-7415, you can talk about concerns or challenges with interpersonal relationships, anxiety, pain, depression, finances or alcohol and drug use.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.