Advice for productions

Advice for productions: Managing your mental health when working on productions containing trauma.

On many occasions I have been asked to support members of the production team working on documentaries that contain sensitive or distressing content. More often than not, the support is reactive, it is requested as a response to a noticeable decline in the mental health of a team member. Although reaching out for help is a positive step, there are preventative measures that productions could implement to maintain good mental health throughout the process.

It’s important to consider the potential of vicarious traumatisation for any individual working closely with others that are traumatised. This is something that psychologist, psychotherapists and other health professionals have to be mindful of and there is also a risk for directors, producers, editors and other crew members. This essentially means that as a result of being involved in the trauma of another individual, you yourself may suffer with psychological distress as a result of working so closely with that trauma. 

The intense nature of filming; the long hours, sometimes away from home can leave the production team feeling immersed in the content. The subject matter can become all-consuming and when people are unable to utilise their usual coping mechanisms due to being away from the home environment, this can result in a destabilisation of mental health.

Here is my advice for maintaining mental health whilst working on productions containing distressing material:

  1. Consider conducting a personal risk assessment of factors that could impact your mental health throughout the production phase. What might be triggering for you? Are there elements of the story that you are telling which resonate with you in some way? If so, when you are tired from working long hours, you may find it harder to manage situations which are emotionally triggering for you.
  2. What are your coping strategies? It will help to list these and to ensure that there is time set aside to engage in these strategies whilst you are filming.
  3. Getting into a routine with healthy coping strategies at the start of the production can be preventative against the impact of the stress of the production.
  4. Ensure that boundaries are implemented and communicated from the outset. This may be boundaries for your own wellbeing or boundaries between the production and the contributors. In the case of journalistic pieces, I regularly see team members who are burnt out because they have been available for contributors at all hours of the day and night. Not only is this unhealthy for the team, but it is unhelpful for the contributors because once the production ends, they may struggle to cope without the support of the production team. Setting boundaries surrounding the hours available for contact and defining the nature of the contact between production and contributor can prevent challenges later down the line for all parties.
  5. Develop a set of healthy coping strategies that work for you and implement these regularly whilst filming. This toolkit may be something that you use on all productions.
  6. Ensure that you have space to decompress from the intensity of the filming. 
  7. Put psychological support in place, either individual or group therapy for the duration of filming. This will provide a space for you to discuss the impact that the production is having on your wellbeing.
  8. Be mindful of subtle changes in your own behaviours. More often than not, distress can present in subtle ways. When you recognise these changes, seek support early.
  9. Remember the basic needs are imperative for psychological health. Our mental health cannot remain stable without the following; good quality sleep, healthy diet, time outdoors, exercise, connection with loved ones, boundaries between work and home life. When under periods of stress, such as when filming intensely, make an effort to be as healthy as possible as this will help to keep your mental health in a stable position. Poor diet, alcohol, drugs, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and little time to relax is a recipe for poor mental health.
  10. Reach out for support when you need it. The sooner you seek support the sooner you will start to recover.

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