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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Article: Actors and Depression

I have known many actors, family members and friends who have suffered from depression. I have compassion for anyone who suffers from its symptoms. This post is meant to help those with depression. To remove the stigma and to support you in finding the help you need to feel positive about you and your life, to feel hope. Actors with depression still have to audition, still have to try to book a job and earn a living. These actors and actresses deserve commission and support. There is a lot of information out there about how to care for yourself if you have ongoing depression. If you have severe symptoms, please talk to someone who is qualified. Below are two articles, as well as links to support actors or anyone else who needs it. 

The signs of depression include prolonged sadness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, restlessness, anxiety and frustration. You may lack the energy to do the things that once made you happy or to even get out of bed some days. You may perhaps feel physical pain and isolation. Depression can strike anyone at any time, perhaps from a chemical imbalance, traumatic life event, or postpartum, to name a few.

1)  Backstage: The Actors Corner: by Jackie Apodaca

"In her book "The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius," Nancy C. Andreasen, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Iowa, argues that the same attributes that help artists create—such as openness and sensitivity—may also make them more susceptible to mental and emotional problems. Research is ongoing on the topic, but when we actors spend so much time dredging up various emotions on command, it seems likely that we'd be more prone to setting ourselves off-kilter than, say, a carpenter. Apart from the art itself, career fluctuations can drag us through hyperbusy, no-sleep periods for weeks on end, followed by stagnant times with no work in sight, making it next to impossible to stay centered. All this is why I encourage everyone, and especially actors, to do all they can to take care of themselves when they suspect that something like depression may be taking its toll.

I contacted two mental health professionals for comment on your question. Both have been actors themselves, so they have particular insight into the topic as it relates to our field.

Frann Altman is a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in clinical psychology and has been a Screen Actors Guild member since 1989. "First, I'd suggest anyone who has 'depressive symptoms and black moods' get themselves to a licensed therapist or psychologist for an assessment," she writes in an email. "Make sure there is no clinical depression or a mood disorder like bipolar. While depression can come and go, bipolar mood disorder is a lifetime disorder and needs attention the same way something like diabetes does. People such as Winston Churchill (who called his depression 'black dog') and William Styron (Pulitzer Prize–winning writer) wrestled with depression that sometimes brought them to their knees, but their brilliance and expression endured. That being said, there is a sense of purpose and creative expression when working. Downtime can really cause one to struggle with questions like 'Where is the next job coming from?' and important, meaningful questions like 'Who am I beyond the actor in me?' Creating a life that is full and rich off-camera is important to explore. Everyone has times when they feel low or sad, but if it impacts your work and your life, it needs more-focused attention. Finally, know that it takes courage to ask those types of questions. I hope the answers open some doors." Altman's website can be found at

Jeanette Yoffe, an actor and therapist with a master's degree in clinical psychology (, suggests that creative activity should be part of your daily life—even when you don't have a job. "Get involved," she writes in an email. "An actor acts! So take action. Create your own spotlight. Find a theater company to join or volunteer at; start writing that project you have on the shelf; take a risk. An active life leaves very little room for depression."

This is where my mind first went upon reading your question. With a career guaranteed to fluctuate, you may need steadying forces in your life to maintain balance. Certainly family, friends, and hobbies should play a role, and there's a lot to be said for steady income in helping to ward off worry, but taking control of your artistic life may help you fight dark clouds. As Yoffe suggests, be sure you have a theater company, inspiring class, or improv group to work out with on a regular basis. Sometimes having an artistic outlet for your feelings can keep them from getting the better of you. And be sure you have friends outside the acting world to help you keep perspective when times are tough.

All that said, Yoffe echoes Altman: "If you feel your depression is interfering with your ability to function—i.e., difficulty getting out of bed, self-neglect, and/or intrusive or ruminating negative thoughts—seek a mental health professional immediately. Depression is not something to ignore but to embrace. In the words of Confucius, 'Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.' "

2) by Dr. Marsha Godkin

One of the multiple reasons actors struggle with problems such as anxiety, depression and substance abuse could be related to a blurring between what is reality and what is acting. There's a famous expression called "fake it till you make it." In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), this would be the technique of acting "as if." So for instance someone struggling with depression is instructed to act in a cheerful manner (i.e. smiling even though the impulse may be to frown, to walk with shoulders back, when the inclination is to slouch and look down on the floor).

But what about an actor who must immerse him- or herself in an intense role? Maybe they are playing someone with a mental disorder or a substance abuse problem. Months and months are spent in getting into the character's shoes, accessing raw emotions and disturbed states of consciousness. But what about when the movie wraps? Is it easy to just snap back? Rationally the actor can of course understand that it was just a part, and not who they are in real life. But on the subconscious level, does the brain become rewired?

According to Hebb's Rule in neuroscience, cells that fire together, wire together. In other words, if a person continually tells him- or herself that he/she is a failure, that will become an automatic thought. Similarly, if a person repeatedly accesses the emotions related to certain states of mind, those emotions will come without conscious awareness at one point. In other words, act depressed enough times, access the emotions of sadness, hurt, frustration etc, and feeling those negative emotions will become habitual. And emotions are a product of thoughts. In order to access the depressed state of mind, an actor may think back to past disappointments, traumas, criticism, repetitive thoughts along the lines of "I'm not a good person, I don't deserve good things, what's the point of trying when nothing will go my way, I'm just going to be abandoned in the end etc."

It's not easy to reprogram thoughts and emotional states, but it is possible with conscious, consistent effort. A therapist can help with this process. I like to compare the "reprogramming" with putting on a significant amount of weight for a role and then having to lose it. Once the role is finished, does the weight instantaneously fall off the next day? Or does it require a lifestyle modification that takes discipline and time (exercise plan, diet change etc)? "Rewiring" brain cells takes just as much consistent effort. You can become addicted to anything, including an emotional state!
Performing can be a high. It feels good to receive praise. But what about when the praise ends? It's impossible to be in the limelight 24/7. Or what happens when there is a bad review? Performers are highly creative people. They have a gift. But with that gift, there is often a price - certain vulnerability, a heightened level of sensitivity. A performer may be more predisposed to struggle with self-esteem issues. And substance abuse could be one of the maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Dr. Masha Godkin, Psy.D, MFT is a professor of counseling psychology, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of Ca. with an Online Therapy Practice, as well as a former child actor. One of her specialties is in addictive behavior and counseling those in the performing art professions. 
Visit to learn about the Online Therapy service options that are available.



8) Books:                                                     

The Will to Live:

Inner Work

Love, Medicine and Miracles:

Also: Dr. Richard O Connor is a suggestion someone sent in. Check out his website and book.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this.

    A great book I would add to your list is called "Undoing Depression", by Richard O'Connor.


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