‘There’s Still A Stigma Attached’: Talking Mental Health With Simon James Of TESS

– tess

The entertainment industry is a business characterised by a fast pace, tight deadlines, ridiculous working hours and all sorts of problems occurring at the last minute. It is also one of the most exciting, fun and rewarding jobs to have. 

The line between having a healthy relationship with your profession and being consumed by it can become blurry at times. Not surprising in a setting, where flawless execution under high pressure is required night after night, and where success is often celebrated extra-hard, because everyone working in this business knows how short-lived it can be.
Simon James is the director of UK-based event safety specialist The Event Safety Shop (TESS). He has been working in live events for three decades, covering a multitude of roles. For the first 15 years, he travelled the world as a rigger working with bands such as The Rolling Stones, Depeche Mode, Take That and many more. In 2002 he moved to managing the safety side of events. For 15 years, he has been working at The Event Safety Shop, the last 10 as a director. 
Simon James
– Simon James
Director of The Event Safety Shop

During this impressive career, James, by his own admission, had “too many personal experiences witnessing people suffering with mental health issues without adequate support.” He thinks the live sector needs to change its approach to mental health, which is why his company announced a partnership with UK charity Music Support on Mental Health Awareness Day, Oct. 10, to further the charity’s work with individuals in the UK music industry suffering from mental, emotional and behavioural health disorders. 

One measure under the partnership includes the introduction of safe hubs backstage at music festivals, where artists and anyone working backstage can speak confidentially to trained industry peer mental health first aiders for help and advice. Music Support also provides confidential helpline service as well as training workshops.
Pollstar asked James about the number one reason people didn’t talk about their own mental health. He said, “there’s still a stigma attached to mental health, and I think some people are ashamed to admit it. Some people don’t even recognise they have a problem and think they should just be able to sort themselves out. Some worry about appearing weak and perceived as being unable to do their job properly.”
According to James, if you’re a freelancer, which this industry heavily relies on, you don’t want to reduce your chances of being selected. “If you have a physical injury such as a broken arm it’s a clearly defined off work period then back to it. The music industry is way behind the curve of treating mental health in the same way.” He emphasized that Tess treated mental or physical health equally.
Mental health in music has been a mainstream topic in the past only when it centered around the artist. The professionals working behind the scenes are rarely mentioned. “Too many crews’ lives have been destroyed by the pressures and the lack of awareness and support. We hope we can help affect change for the better,” said James.
With the unbridled success of live entertainment all over the world, the pressure on people working in this business is likely to grow. “Look at the top end of the market, where artists want the biggest, most spectacular tour. That puts massive strain on the people behind the scenes from the creative teams to the production teams tasked with installing complex builds with new tech. When I was touring back in the mid 80’s with big acts like Dire Straights and Tina Turner, we were loading in six or seven trucks. Now arena shows are 20 plus trucks and the big stadium tours hit 30 trucks. They still have to load in the (more complex) shows in the same timeframe. We’re in danger of destroying people both physically and mentally.”
The tragic passing of former ATC Live agent Chris Meredith, aged 37, or the setback that caused Metallica’s James Hetfield to re-enter rehab, are a reminder that the topic of mental health concerns artists and their teams alike. And things are shifting, mental health is increasingly being talked about at music conferences and the trade press. The U.S. industry just announced Tour Support, a new non-profit program tackling the most critical needs of artists, crews and vendors by providing mental health support for the touring community. Backers include Live Nation and WME, artists that have endorsed the program include John Legend, Steve Aoki and Grace VanderWaal.
In the U.K., the UK National Arts Wellbeing Collective launched in May. The UK NAWC is patterned after an Australian initiative established by Arts Centre Melbourne, and brings together more than 60 arts institutions from around the UK, including music venues, theatres, museums, touring companies and unions.
Talking about the partnership with TESS, Music Support managing director Eric Mtungwazi stated: “Music Support is delighted that Tess has chosen to support the charity in helping industry peers affected by mental ill health and/or addiction issues. TESS is a leader in the field of health and safety needs, and we see this partnership as a significant industry step forward towards putting mental and physical health agenda on more even footing for the wellbeing of the community we serve.”
The charity hosts a 24/7 phone helpline: 0800 0306789.