“I’m ok” (and other lies): Safeguarding mental health in freelance creatives

January can be pretty rough on all of us. The days are still relatively short, the Christmas decorations are back in the attic, and it’s time to return to work after the holidays. At a time of year when many are silently fretting over making their December paycheque last until (what feels like) the 72nd January, many freelance creatives haven’t been paid at all. In fact, the likelihood is, they haven’t carried out any billable work in weeks, with studios closing down for Christmas and no one available to discuss their next contract with. Shockingly, of all the freelancers I know (and there are plenty of them), only 3 have confirmed work for January, the rest left in limbo over the festive period, not knowing where or when their next job will crop up. Although this is only the tip of the iceberg, it’s not surprising that freelance creatives are three times more likely to suffer from a mental health issue.

Before we get down and dirty with this, if you’ve clicked on this article because you’re in a really bad place right now, please, seek help immediately. Contact your GP, call the Samaritans on 116 123, or if you’re considering harming yourself, go to A&E and speak to the crisis team. If possible, let a family member or friend know how you’re feeling and see if they can accompany you. If you don’t have anyone to support and encourage you to do this then, hey, hi, I’m Deb, I’m your friend now and I want you to go and get some help because you shouldn’t be suffering alone.

Why are freelance creatives more susceptible to mental health issues?

Let’s face it, the reasons most of us choose to go freelance are the reasons why so many of us struggle mentally. Freedom from the 9-5 can quickly turn into unregular, unhealthy work patterns. Travel can lead to isolation. No earning limits can slide down into financial pressures. Creative freedom can become an obsession with perfection. The blessings can become a curse, and yet the majority would rather tolerate these issues than re-enter the conventional work force. Ok, I get it, I would rather gnaw off my own arm than go back to working in an office, but we mustn’t let our innate passion for creative independence cause problems elsewhere.

Approximately 15% of the working population is self employed. That’s 5 million of us, 60% of whom report feeling their mental health has been negatively affected since deciding to fly solo (the most common problems being anxiety and depression). Creativity and creative output often come from deeply personal experiences: pain, suffering and vulnerability. We create some of our best work when drawing upon emotive memories and, whilst we may be pleased with the end result, the accompanying emotional exhaustion can be overwhelming. You don’t have to be working on a Michelangelo level masterpiece, I’m talking day to day projects that unwittingly take more from you that you realise. I felt overwhelming guilt for some time because I felt I just couldn’t converse with anyone for at least an hour after returning home from working on set (despite the 90 minute commute inbetween). One day, a food stylist friend of mine was telling me that he’s had to cancel plans in the past because they were within a couple of hours of finishing work and he knew he just couldn’t deal with socialising. We had “only” been prepping, styling and photographing food on set, and yet it took so much out of us creatively, mentally and physically, we just didn’t want to be around other people. I’m so incredibly grateful I had that conversation that day because it made me realise that it’s ok to shut down and recharge for a little while.

Why a work tribe is so important

Ok, I’ll admit, I used to low key cringe whenever I’d see “inspirational” quotes on Instagram preaching how “your vibe attracts your tribe”. But, oh boy, do we need other likeminded people in our lives. Don’t panic, I’m not suggesting 9-5 levels of co-workers with at least one accounts assistant called Karen who will irrationally hate you, and a sleazy office sales guy who steals food from the fridge. We need other people because there are conversations that need to happen, ideas that need to be discussed. Isolation and loneliness can compromise the immune system, leading to insomnia and depression. If you’re not seeing or in contact with other people on a regular basis, these things can fester and bloom. A survey of freelance creatives found that 60% had experienced suicidal thoughts, 37% had made a plan of how to do it, and, heartbreakingly, 16% had attempted to take their own life. Although only a third had visited a GP, 88.5% said they would speak to a friend or co-worker. This isn’t as likely to happen if the individual concerned is working alone the majority of the time.

A couple of years ago, I was becoming increasingly stressed and tired. I loved my work, but I was obsessed with it, so much so, that I was utterly unaware that I was fading. Pressures to meet high standards and competition in the industry were taking its toll on me. One frosty evening, I was standing on my back step and staring at the stars when my husband walked into the kitchen and said ” the world wouldn’t be the same if you weren’t in it anymore”. That was the moment I realised something was horribly, horribly wrong. It took 3 weeks of crank calling my GP surgery for me to make an appointment, but I eventually built up the nerve to get some help. My doctor arranged for me to have some blood tests, which revealed that my blood count had dropped to a dangerously low level that required immediate intervention (and explained the tiredness and tearfulness of the months prior). Now for the kicker: this wasn’t the first time this had happened to me. In fact, back in 2010, I’d experienced the same issues along with a bone marrow condition that kept me off work for a year. The difference between 2010 and 2018 was that, this time around, I was working alone. There was no one around to tell me that it wasn’t normal for my mood to crash so dramatically if a shot wasn’t going to plan. Had I still worked in an office environment, I’m sure someone would have flagged up my 3 naps a day, or would have at least bitched about my hair falling out all over the place. As much as I begrudge to admit it, had I been around other people on a day to day basis, this issue would most likely have been flagged and rectified a lot earlier than it was.

Being part of a community isn’t just good for keeping an eye on each other, we need it to discuss, debate and relate, to get ideas and worries out in the open so they don’t develop into something unhealthy. Lack of feedback on projects and irregular working contracts can often leave freelance creatives feeling anxious and lost. Although work appraisals often invoke feelings of fear and dread, dealing with the polar opposite and having zero praise and/or suggestions on how to improve can leave one questioning if they are doing a good enough job. Also, whilst discussing money is often considered brash or taboo (although I’m pleased to see this stigma starting to lift in recent years), it’s pretty important in the creative sector to, well, let’s not beat around the bush here, make sure you’re not getting ripped off. Over 20% of freelancers are paid below the poverty line, which isn’t exactly conducive to good mental health. Poor pay and exploitative contracts can lower our sense of self worth whilst increasing the pressure we place on ourselves to do a good job in the hope of securing more, better paid, work in future. I once had a billion pound organisation ask me to write recipes for them in exchange for yoghurt. Yes, yoghurt. Sure, sounds like a great idea, I’m sure Natwest will let me pay my mortgage with a wheelbarrow of fruit corners. In all seriousness though, that’s just not cool. When I told them to speak to my agent if they want to make a serious offer, I was told “well if you don’t do it, someone else will for free”. That’s the value that the billion pound company put on my time. The company that pays its executives million pound salaries were happy to disregard my worth because they know they’ll find someone else to exploit. Fortunately, my work flow is pretty steady, so I was able to laugh it off and give the yoghurt aisle the finger every time I’m out shopping. But for someone lower down the ladder, or someone struggling to feel valued because they’re isolated and not coping mentally, that could have been a heavy blow. It’s imperative that we network with other freelancers so we can continue to build each other up when the corporate monster tries to make us feel that our skills, our innate creativity, is disposable and easily replaced.

I just don’t feel right. What can I do about this?

Well, first of all, I’m glad you’ve realised this, because now you can start taking steps to feel better and maybe get some outside help. Here are some pointers to guide you off into a happier, healthier, direction:

  • Decrease isolation by working on creating your own network. Sites such as MeetUp and Leapers can help hook you up with people working in the same industry, or simply other self employed individuals you can go and have a good rant with. If you’re able to do any work in house/for a studio, do so. There is one studio I work at along with the same familiar freelance faces and I absolutely love it there. It’s a zero filter environment where we spend our lunch hours discussing all manner of personal issues. Whilst this may sound a little out there, it’s cathartic and a much needed opportunity to discuss everything from our mental and financial wellbeing to sharing studio horror stories for each others amusement. If that level of openness is overwhelming or you don’t have any regular faces to vent to, just getting out and doing some work in a coffee shop or other public place can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Speak to a friend. I know it can be hard sharing these feelings with those out of the industry: the majority of my friends think I have the most glamorous, exciting job on the planet and cannot comprehend why I sometimes want to stick my head in the oven. I find it can help to start the conversation by telling them that you don’t expect them to understand, you just need someone to listen. If you don’t have anyone you feel you can have these conversations with, the kind souls at Samaritans will always lend a friendly ear.
  • Try and stick to set working hours. It’s all too easy to procrastinate or push yourself too far and end up working into the small hours. Take a lunch hour, just as you would in a conventional work environment. When your working day is done, shut down your business emails and don’t look at them until the next day. I know this isn’t easy now that social media has created an expectation that we should all be reachable 24/7, but this isn’t good for you mentally or physically. Change your email settings so you don’t receive notifications out of work hours. A terrifying prospect at first, but gloriously liberating in the long run.
  • Don’t, and I cannot stress this enough, fall into comparing yourself to industry rivals on social media. Instagram is our highlights reel, not our behind the scenes footage. The person you may see pulling in 50k likes per photo and collaborating with industry giants may be getting paid in yoghurt or worrying about their next contract just as much as you are.
  • Don’t stress over the word “no”. Sometimes a contract just isn’t right for you. Sometimes your proposal may have needed a little more development. Sometimes someone else may have come along and offered to do the same job for free, at a lesser price, or in exchange for product (I’m not bitter, honest). Breathe, let it go, and move on.
  • Get feedback. I know this sounds terrifying, but a brief email or discussion can really help you develop, build your confidence, and gain more work in future. You’re not being needy, a quick email stating how much you enjoyed a project and asking about your performance can go a long way towards building positive working relationships which, in turn, will help reduce isolation and loneliness.

It’s not all doom and gloom

Hey, I’m not here to put a downer on working in the creative freelance sector, for the most part, it’s pretty sweet. Creativity in itself is proven to reduce anxiety, depression and stress, and is known to help process trauma. Some of my best work has come from having a really bad time and created as a means to escape whatever I’m going through. There’s a line in Michael Rosen’s “Sad Book” (a beautiful expression of dealing with depression after the loss of his son and mother) which says “every day I try to do one thing I can be proud of. Then, when I go to bed, I think very, very, very hard about this one thing”. When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t feeling too great. Instead of wallowing in bed, I dragged myself up, wrote a recipe for madeleines, baked and photographed them, then whacked it up on Insta whilst eating half a dozen of the rascals and listening to a bit of Joanie Mitchell. Getting the creative juices flowing not only lifted my mood, but it fired me up to dust off my laptop and write this article. Plus I got to eat madeleines. Bonus.

For many, the highs of being a freelance creative far outweigh the lows. The freedom to work without boundaries, to not be confined to one workspace, to travel, to do what sets your soul on fire, it’s no wonder that 67% state that, overall, they are happy. If you’re in the fortunate group who are happy and content, there’s no harm in following up some of these tips yourself and building your own little network (if you haven’t already). You may not realise how much your mere presence means to someone else.

Help and support

  • If you require urgent help, call 111, attend A&E, or ask your GP for an emergency appointment. Do not feel ashamed to express how you’re feeling, they’re there to help.
  • Samaritans have confidential telephone, email and text based services 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. You can contact them via www.samaritans.org or by telephone on 116 123.
  • www.mentalhealthandmoneyadvice.org provide excellent resources for anyone whose mental health is being affected by their financial situation.
  • www.leapers.co are a friendly online network of freelancers, perfect for anyone struggling to travel to meet ups in person.
  • www.meetup.com is great for finding local groups, or even setting up your own.
  • www.mind.org.uk has a telephone and text based service that provides advice on a wide range of mental health issues.

To quote Michael Rosen one last time: “Every day I try and do one thing that means I have a good time. It can be anything so long as it doesn’t make anyone else unhappy”. Regardless of whether you’re in a good or bad place right now, I urge you to give this a try. The role of tortured artist may be cool in movies, but in real life, it sucks. Try and get out there and build your own little support network. You never know when you, or they, may need it.

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Debby Donnelly-Addison

Debby is a food columnist, writer and stylist from the north west of England. She has spent the last five years travelling the world in search of the best epicurean experiences, from baking banana bread on roadside of the Maui jungle, to cooking lobster on a boat off the Cuban coast, she seeks to learn from the locals and taste what each location has to offer on a grassroots level. Her recipe book, "The Boho Baker", is due for release in autumn 2020. Debby can be found on Instagram as @thebohobaker

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