Ben Steel leads mental health first aid training push

Ben Steel.

Today, on R U OK? Day, many among us are checking in on our family, friends and colleagues’ mental health and wellbeing – especially as lockdowns roll on.

However, what should we do next when someone reveals to us that actually, they aren’t okay?

That’s something actor and filmmaker Ben Steel wants to help the screen industry confidentially tackle.

Steel’s 2019 ABC documentary The Show Must Go On addressed mental health in the entertainment industry, going behind the Entertainment Assist statistics that reveal for those working in the industry, rates of suicide ideation are double that of the general population, anxiety symptoms 10 times higher and depression symptoms five times higher.

As part of that film’s impact campaign, Steel toured the country with a Wellness Roadshow to start a bigger conversation with various arts and entertainment sectors about mental health and wellbeing. However, the process revealed to him that the screen industry lagged behind others in terms of support, and he launched webinars Screen Well.

Steel has since trained in mental health first aid, which teaches participants how to provide initial support to a person who may be experiencing a mental health problem or crisis. Accredited to train others, he now wants to assist his screen industry colleagues to be able do the same.

Via Screen Australia’s Industry Partnerships program, Steel is set to run five free online courses to train 60 screen practitioners.

The courses, already fully subscribed, are designed to help people navigate and initiate conversations about mental health, as well as how to recognise common mental health issues, intervene early and direct people to professional help, and respond in a mental health crisis.

Steel is conscious of getting training to those working in all kinds of roles across the screen sector. This is particularly as the industry’s freelance and project-by-project nature means there isn’t a HR department or other corporate infrastructure to turn to for help in the workplace.

“I’m trying to create more and more awareness in the screen sector that it’s okay to have these conversations,” he tells IF.

“Getting trained up in mental health first aid will not only help you have those conversations with your colleagues, but it’s a life skill. Once you learn it, you’ll be able to apply to anybody that you are concerned about.

“Many people on set now have all different kinds of qualifications to do their work physically safely in the workplace. But there are very few that would have mental health first aid training at the moment, outside some of the big production companies or the networks.”

Recent MHFA course participant and co-chair of the MEAA Equity Wellness Committee Kathy Lepan-Walker said: “Often screen colleagues don’t know what to say or do, or how to help someone they are concerned might be struggling with a mental health challenge, and that’s where mental health first aid training helps. It provides you with the framework and the skills to have these conversations and enables you to provide initial support to someone that you are worried about,”

Jungle Entertainment CEO Jason Burrows said for too long, the mental health of our screen workforce had been neglected despite terrible statistics.

“It’s time for change. Great work has been done creating guidelines and protocols that look at the physical health concerns of our cast and crew, and now we need equal consideration and support to help strengthen mental wellbeing,” he said.

While the initial five courses are already at full capacity, organisers are hopeful that other screen sector stakeholders will follow the lead of Screen Australia and invest in additional MHFA training.