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2 September 2020

Artists on the frontline – what support is available for artists’ wellbeing?

Harriet Lowe
Practitioner wellbeing in the arts & (mental) health field has rightly become a hot topic, with the impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods making it only more so. We asked a few organisations what support they offer or would like to offer.

As I compiled contributions to our latest report on arts & mental health with children and young people, two people said that they – as artists and arts and health practitioners in this field – were on the frontline. It stuck in my mind as frontline is a powerful word which makes you think of soldiers, war correspondents and lately, healthcare staff in a global pandemic.

Many people outside the sector might not naturally think of artists in this context, but it chimes with what a lot of people told the Foundation when we were researching the arts and mental health field initially last year for what became our first report, Creatively Minded. The work can be challenging; there is a risk of high levels of stress, exhaustion, burn-out and even secondary trauma. An Arts & Health Hub (at the Free Space Project, Kentish Town) peer group session on artist self-care last year provides a good insight into some of the concerns artists have from inadequate pay to isolation, feeling overwhelmed and the triggering of personal issues.

The work can be challenging; there is a risk of high levels of stress, exhaustion, burn-out and even secondary trauma

We wanted to find out more about what kinds of support artists do get – whether as freelancers, employed staff and indeed managers/leaders who may be in as much need as their staff.

COVID-19 has just made this an even more important issue as many in the arts sector have lost work. A survey just published by the Arts & Health Hub found that 42% of respondents had lost between 50% and 100% of their income and 44% said the pandemic had impacted their mental health moderately, with 12% saying it had severely impacted them.

42% of respondents had lost between 50% and 100% of their income during the pandemic.

What support is available from organisations?

In researching this blog, we asked a few organisations what they offer or would like to offer – and spoke to a few others who have in their roles an overview of the field and/or have a particular interest in it.

Organisations included: City of London Sinfonia, Darts, Outside Edge, Soundcastle, Flourishing Lives, the Free Space Project and 20 Stories High.

Pre-briefing and de-briefing involving artists, staff, leadership and partners

City of London Sinfonia (CLS) runs musical residencies with children and young people who attend the Bethlem and Maudsley psychiatric hospital school. They brief musicians when they hire them for a residency, the lead musician has a planning conversation with all musicians booked for a session beforehand, and they have a planning meeting with the hospital school staff. On the day of the session, they have a pre-session meeting with all musicians taking part and a handover with school staff. After each session, they have a reflective session with musicians and school staff.

CLS cover the time for briefing sessions in musicians’ fees. So do Soundcastle, a creative music-making organization in London and the South East which is vital given the nature of freelance work and pay.

Darts in Doncaster also highlighted the importance of a close partnership with partners in other sectors who have more clinical or background knowledge about participants such as occupational therapists from the local NHS Trust or teachers at a school. The value of good partnerships in this regard has been brought up elsewhere too.

Mental health first aid training

Young people’s theatre company 20 Stories High in Liverpool and Darts both mentioned that they had sourced Mental Health First Aid training for their staff and City of London Sinfonia are considering doing so. Darts have also brought in specific training relevant to a particular project e.g. on personality disorder when working in Approved Premises.

There are various providers of mental health first aid training, including Mental Health First Aid England and St John’s Ambulance.

Supervision / therapist facilitated reflective practice

Some organisations in this field are now offering their artists access to a therapist for supervision. 20 Stories High offer supervision to their staff as part of a whole-organisation approach to improving wellbeing of staff and young people.

Daniel Regan of the Free Space Project and the Arts & Health Hub has recently secured support for supervision for key staff and has been able to extend it to other staff over the short term with the help of an emergency COVID-related grant.

Soundcastle have also recently secured funding through an Arts Council England project to bring in an external supervisor to work with their musicians. They are currently working out whether it will be proactive (regular sessions) or reactive (available when someone asks for it).

Supervision can be group or individual or a mixture of both. The South London Gallery’s learning and participation team have recently hired a supervisor for the team who provides 1.5 hours of group supervision every month and an hour with the team leader – and is available for 1-2-1s as needed.

Flourishing Lives in London have been running Reflective Practice groups since 2018 open to all arts and health/wellbeing practitioners. These groups are essentially group supervision but they feel reflective practice resonates better in a non-clinical, arts context. Pre-COVID, they ran five groups, each of which met every two months. The groups are facilitated by a trained counsellor – the Claremont Centre where Flourishing Lives are based has a subsidized therapy service which they have been able to draw on. Flourishing Lives have been commissioned by other organisations to deliver bespoke reflective practice groups online through the COVID-19 crisis.

Outside Edge Theatre are keen to bring in supervision but reported difficulty in resourcing it particularly through project funding, especially where a per participant cost is stipulated by funders, and in scheduling group supervision for freelance staff in particular.

What else is available?

The general consensus from those we spoke to suggests that these kinds of structured offers from organisations are not widespread, particularly in the arts sector, though more likely to be available where artists are working in hospitals or care settings.

Structured offers from organisations are not widespread

A lot of people create their own sources of support. Theatre practitioner and Goldsmiths academic, Gail Babb, told us she had created her own sources of self-care, which included various informal reflective spaces, mentoring relationships, and creating her own peer support networks of friends – artists and non-artists.

Some people also choose to pay for their own supervision/therapy. Others source it through connections such as having a qualified trustee on the Board who is willing to provide pro bono support.

A lot of people create their own sources of support.

Supervision can seem like the gold standard and it’s often what people want and need – however, it may also be about having access to tiers of support as needed. Other forms of support include:

Coaching and mentoring

The importance of coaching and mentoring relationships is often raised – which speaks to the ‘gig’ or freelance nature of much participatory arts work where there is often a relationship with several employers or commissioners rather than just one, but a desire for personal and professional growth. Issues like pay and professional development, more so than ever in the current crisis, cannot entirely be separated out from emotional and social wellbeing.

Thriving Facilitators is a paid membership programme which offers peer support as well as a group and individual coaching programme.

Soundcastle have recently launched The Soundcastle Community, an online platform offering a new programme of coaching/mentoring music and wellbeing/mental health practitioners.

Peer support groups

Peer support appears highly valued. A couple of people mentioned the idea of mutual care or circles of care which emphasizes the care we all provide to each other. Peer support initiatives reflect that idea too.

Peer support is highly valued.

The Arts & Health Hub run by Daniel Regan at the Free Space Project run regular peer support sessions for artists. These were in person pre-COVID but have been running online since the lockdown in March 2020. Daniel reports that one upside to this has been that membership has expanded outside the London area to other parts of the country.

Both Thriving Faciltators and Soundcastle above offer a peer forum online.

What next?

There has been increased attention to artist wellbeing in the last couple of years which has been widely welcomed and it is frequently a topic at arts/health events. Nicola Naismith wrote what has become the cornerstone report, Artists Practising Well, in 2019. Artists Practising Well was launched at an event held jointly with the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, London Arts and Health Forum and Flourishing Lives – which was described to us as a ‘cry for help’ from the artists and practitioners who attended it.

However, whilst a few of those we spoke to for this blog had successfully secured funding that could support self-care for their staff, others told us that this was not the case. Others felt the problem often lies with art sector management including commissioners of work who are reluctant to accept that artists might need mental health support to do socially engaged work. One spoke of burn-out still being seen as a ‘badge of honour’ among some art forms.

Both Flourishing Lives and Arts & Health Hub peer sessions are very highly regarded, but both physically in London. The Cultural, Health and Wellbeing Alliance will soon be running a pilot group support initiative in the Yorkshire and Humber region. We’d be very interested to hear of similar sectoral or cross-sectoral groups or networks in other parts of the UK too.

Thank you to all those who shared their views and experiences for this piece. The Baring Foundation is keen to further consider the issue of artist wellbeing, especially concrete action that can be taken by funders.

Some support initiatives people have told us about

Arts & Health Hub
The Art and Health Hub (see blog) has just launched the Support Hub – a pilot programme offering mental health support for artists with lived experience of mental health difficulties, with facilitation by an integrative counsellor and artist. There are spaces for 12-15 artists – more details about how to apply here and the deadline is 16 October 2020 5pm.

Flourishing Lives reflective practice programme (see above)

Britten Pear Arts (formerly Snape Maltings) – MOT courses for musicians

Britten Pears Arts who are based in Suffolk run an MOT programme, residential courses that provide time out for artists to reflect on their physical, emotional, musical and mental health. In particular they run courses for musicians who work in challenging settings (care homes, prisons, etc). They have just piloted a virtual MOT programme as well. Find out more here.

The Soundcastle Community (see blog)

Thriving Facilitators (see blog)

Useful reading

Nicola Naismith, Artists Practising Well

Arts & Health Hub, COVID-19 Artist Impact Report For Artists Working in Arts & Health