‘Therapy Can Be a Luxury’: The Strikes and Hollywood Workers’ Mental Health

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Organizations and grassroots groups set up by union members are fighting to keep up with the high demand for mental health services

Mental Health During Hollywood Strike

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For James Kane, the struggle of trying to make a living as an actor was the reason why he became a therapist.

As a member of SAG-AFTRA for over 15 years, Kane knew what it was like to never know whether or not he’d get enough work for the year to qualify for the guild’s health plan. Living through the 2007 WGA strike allowed him to witness firsthand the anxiety of entertainment workers who don’t know when they’re going to have jobs again.

“I made enough to qualify every once in a while, but it was always a roll of the dice,” Kane said. “That experience made me sensitive to the needs of actors and entertainment workers whose work is now being maligned. I decided to go into mental health for all the reasons that this strike is happening right now.”

With the blessing of his employers, Kane began a low-cost therapy group where members of the WGA, SAG-AFTRA and other unions can discuss the anxiety and other mental and emotional problems they have gone through not just during this strike-filled summer, but long before writers and actors took to the picket lines.

His group is one of many mental health services being offered by various grassroots and institutional organizations, and there are thousands looking for help.

The cost of an individual session, which can be $175-200, is shared among the group at $20 each,” Kane said. “It’s a model we needed to make access more equitable, because there are members who were getting therapy before the strike but discontinued it because they thought they couldn’t afford it anymore, and there are others who don’t have healthcare or could never afford therapy at all.”

I decided to go into mental health for all the reasons that this strike is happening right now.”

James Kane, SAG-AFTRA member and therapist

Even after four months, union members on the picket lines have told TheWrap that they are just as motivated on day 146 as they were on day 1. The chants of “one day longer, one day stronger” have echoed among WGA and SAG-AFTRA members throughout the summer, and the end is now in sight as the Writers Guild reached a tentative agreement on Sunday.

But that doesn’t mean that the strike hasn’t taken a financial and emotional toll on thousands of union members, whether they are on strike or just out of work. Organizations like the Entertainment Community Fund and the Motion Picture and Television Fund have reported overwhelming calls for financial aid requests, and more than 3,000 crew members enrolled in the Motion Picture Industry Retirement Plan have taken hardship withdrawals to make ends meet.

That fear of not being able to make ends meet if the strike doesn’t end soon is the most common source of anxiety, but Kane says that’s not the only one. There’s also the fear that after all this time, the strike might be a sign that showbiz isn’t one’s true calling, or that it is but they won’t have the financial means to pursue their dreams anymore.

“I saw this both in 2007 and now: the feeling that after putting all this time, money, and energy into following a career in Hollywood, you’re running out of one or all of those things. That’s a terrifying feeling, and people need help processing it,” he said.

For many members of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, the picket lines that began as an effort to halt struck productions became a source of emotional strength through the new friendships formed with fellow union members and the daily routine of marching in front of the studio gates.

“We have to acknowledge that it’s hard being out on the picket lines every day, and we do everything we can to make it easier for people,” WGA member Melissa Blake said outside one of the “Dancing With The Stars” picket lines. “We have themed days and food and do everything we can to make this bearable, but yeah, I’d like to be a writer rather than an event planner.”

Blake’s sister and fellow guild member, Joy, appreciates the effort.

“I never wake up in the morning excited to do this. I wake up full of rage and I’m so angry every day. But then I come to these picket lines and I meet someone new and I walk away feeling glad that I took the time to picket today,” she said.

But being out of work can bring with it some specific mental illnesses that picket line solidarity can’t help. James Kane’s wife, Alyson Roux, is a nutritionist who specializes in assisting those with eating disorders, and she says that cases have risen during the strike.

“There are people who grew up in households where the family was struggling with food insecurity, and now with the strike raising the risk of falling back into that insecurity, unhealthy eating habits can develop,” Roux said. “This is compounded by the fact that many entertainment workers haven’t fully financially recovered from the pandemic, and having wave after wave of insecurity can harm the body’s ability to tolerate high stress situations.”

To help with that stress and the factors that cause it, the Entertainment Community Fund launched a series of weekly online workshops, including 30-minute mindful meditation sessions and guidance on financial support, job searching and self-care techniques to help entertainment workers get through the strike.

Another popular session is an hour-long, three-part workshop called “Anxiety Toolbox,” which teaches participants how to understand the symptoms of anxiety and different mental care techniques to handle it. For those in need of individual care, ECF offers short-term supportive care and case workers who can help connect clients to medical and psychiatric care.

The demand for all of these services has only gotten higher as the strike has gone on. Tina Hookom, regional services director for ECF, says that her team started receiving an estimated 50-60 new calls for assistance every week starting with the third week of the WGA strike. That rate only increased once SAG-AFTRA went on strike on July 14.

But the resources in ECF’s network have increased as well, thanks largely to grassroots efforts.

“We have seen individuals and groups reach out to provide gathering spaces and establish affinity groups that we can direct members to,” Hookom said.

Liz Alper, a WGA board member and co-founder of Hollywood staffer solidarity network Pay Up Hollywood, says that there’s been a concerted effort by WGA and SAG-AFTRA’s rank-and-file to provide as many mental health resources as possible for anyone in Hollywood who needs it, with the hopes that the expanded network can find a wider range of people who need help.

“There’s a sense of comradery that can come with being in a writers room, and I think a lot of people needed that during the strike,” Alper said. “Some people get it through the picket lines, and others need a more structured environment where they can share their personal strike struggles with others who are in this situation.”

As a neurodivergent writer, Alper organized her strike work in a way that supports her mental health. She eschewed picket lines with larger and louder crowds, instead getting involved in the grassroots pickets that were set up in the early weeks of the strike to shut down productions that continued shooting without writers.

Recently, she’s been involved in the picket lines that have formed outside the rehearsal spaces for “Dancing With the Stars,” which ABC planned to move forward on without the WGA writer it hires to work with the show’s hosts. She’s also been involved with affinity groups for neurodivergent writers to allow them to connect and support one another during the strike.

Whether it’s institutional aid from orgs like Entertainment Community Fund or individual efforts like James Kane’s therapy group, Alper feels that the mental health network created by and for Hollywood labor has been a major reason why the interunion solidarity that has defined this strike has held together for so long, providing the industry’s working class a space to express not only the anxiety they feel about this work stoppage, but also the anxiety many have felt about their field trending in a direction that is making it more difficult for them to earn a living.

“It’s worth remembering that even before this strike, there were a lot of people who want and need therapy but couldn’t because they’re getting part-time pay for full-time work. Therapy can be a luxury for the lowest paid in our industry,” Alper said.

It’s why Alper believes that the biggest aid Hollywood could give to so many workers struggling with mental health is a fair deal, one that can free writers from the stress she’s suffered for years having to stretch out the pay she got from the single writing job she could find each year, a job that only lasted 10-15 weeks because the show she was working on used a miniroom and did not keep her employed when production began.

“When I was hustling as an assistant, I thought that once I became a staff writer I would be financially stable, yet here I am during this strike still wondering if I can stay financially sustainable as a staff writer, because I can’t keep going like this for another five years.”

For all of TheWrap’s WGA strike coverage, read here.