• The San Juan Daily Star

A new must-have for TV and movie shoots: Therapists

By Alex Marshall

When Lou Platt talks about her increasingly in-demand TV and movie production job, she has to make one thing clear: She can’t discuss 99% of the work itself.

Platt, 41, is a British therapist who has worked on high-profile productions like “I May Destroy You,” Michaela Coel’s TV series inspired by her own experience of sexual assault.

Client confidentiality means Platt can’t say exactly what happens in her sessions, and nondisclosure agreements mean she can’t even reveal most of her productions’ names. People often misconstrue what her work is about, she said in an interview, thinking she’s there to spot — and put a stop to — storylines or scenes that might upset actors and technicians.

“My role is to actually help the art take greater risks,” she said, adding that no one makes their best work if they’re stressed or anxious.

Sometimes, Platt — a former actor — is involved before filming begins, helping writers turn harrowing autobiographical material into scripts. Other times, she introduces herself to the cast and crew at the start of filming, and lets them know they can call her. She’s also there for film editors who have to watch harrowing scenes over and over while finishing off a show.

The presence of on-set and on-call therapists is particularly notable in British film and TV, which has been involved in an industrywide discussion about mental health since 2017, when Michael Harm, a location manager who had worked on numerous movies including the Harry Potter franchise, killed himself.

The day he died, Harm sent a letter to a colleague, Sue Quinn, saying he had nowhere to turn for help with struggles at work, and urging her to change that for others in the industry.

“You’re pushed, pushed, pushed and pushed to the limit, all the time,” said Quinn, also a location manager, about the experience of working on a typical set. That’s especially true, she said, when producers prioritize remaining on budget over mental health. Actors and crew work exhausting hours and many experience bullying, she added.

After receiving the letter, Quinn approached a British nonprofit that supports movie and TV workers experiencing financial troubles, and asked it to develop a help line for workers experiencing issues including depression, anxiety and bullying as well as financial stress. The following year, that organization, the Film and TV Charity, started a 24-hour phone line: It received around 7,000 calls in 2020, said Valeria Bullo, a member of the charity’s mental health team.

The charity also conducted a survey to assess the extent of mental health problems in the industry. Of 9,000 respondents, over half said they’d considered taking their own life.

Before filming started on “I May Destroy You,” Coel and her team knew they wanted a therapist involved, the writer and actress said in an email exchange. Initially, the expectation was that Platt would just work with Coel if “shooting some of the darker scenes that reflected my own life became emotionally taxing,” Coel said. But then a producer decided to make the therapist available to everyone.

“She is very clearly on the side of the person who is in need,” Coel said of Platt. She puts that person “before producers, directors and money, and television itself. And actually she may have been the only person on set able to do that,” she added.

Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor, a writer and producer, said she first worked with Platt while writing a short film about her experience of seeking asylum in Britain. She found their sessions so useful that she decided to bring Platt onto the sets for several other productions she was working on, including an upbeat Christmas movie.

“It should be part of how we all work, as we don’t know what anyone’s working through,” Gharoro-Akpojotor said.

When TV companies came back to work last year after lockdowns across Britain lifted, casts and crew found themselves under pressure to make up for lost time, cramming a year’s work into a few months, according to Sarah McCaffrey, another therapist whose company, Solas Mind, provides counseling in the industry.

These compressed timelines were “almost unsustainable,” McCaffrey said. On top of that, crew were often split up into in small “bubbles,” isolated from each other for coronavirus safety, which meant fewer social interactions. On some productions, up to 30 people had booked sessions with her company, she said.

The pandemic also seems to have encouraged American companies to offer more on-set support. Last April, Netflix hired Jake Knapik, a clinical psychologist, to help develop mental health courses for its British and United States productions. Knapik said that “COVID has been the catalyst,” noting that lockdowns helped everyone realize just how debilitating loneliness and anxiety could be.

When Amazon was filming “The Underground Railroad,” a series about enslaved workers fleeing a cotton plantation, therapist Kim Whyte was on set for much of the shoot. Some therapists prefer working off-site so people avoid the possible stigma of being seen receiving mental health support, but Whyte said she walked around chatting with everyone between takes: that way nobody knew when she was discussing something serious, or something trivial.

When someone needed to talk something through, it was sometimes about issues raised by the show, she said. “Some of the cast and crew were disturbed by the content — just the institution of slavery,” she added. But just as often, they wanted to talk about issues they were dealing with at home, and how those were having an effect on their mood, like in any workplace.

Platt said she felt therapists should also be available after productions end, in case problems emerge later. “You wouldn’t have therapy for the effect of a car crash while you’re still in hospital,” she said. Actors and writers should even have access to counseling when promoting films, she added, since journalists often ask them to relive traumatic experiences over and over again.

“At the moment, all this is radical,” Platt said. But she hoped the stigma would disappear, and that soon on-set mental health support would be considered normal: She imagined a therapist’s trailer, with a line of people happy to be seen waiting outside.

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