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‘Losing all of my work completely took away my coping mechanism’

Sam switched to a career in the theatre to put her mental health struggles behind her. But the Covid-19 pandemic has badly hit the sector and taken its toll on Sam’s money and mind

The Covid-19 pandemic could not have hit at a worse time for Sam.

The theatre worker from Hove was just at the end of her ‘quiet season’ when national lockdown kicked off on March 23. The money earned from working on productions at a Brighton theatre company last Christmas was running out as she waited for shows to kick off again in April.

But that never happened. Nor did Brighton Fringe, another staple of Sam’s working calendar. And Boris Johnson’s tighter restrictions, announced last week, made more grim reading for theatres, which look set to stay closed until next summer at the earliest.

It’s not as easy as just picking up another job in an industry that I haven’t worked in for five years

Freelancer Sam saw her income slashed to virtually zero. As she moved in with her partner at the start of lockdown, the 35-year-old was forced to rely on his financial support with minimal furlough pay from a PAYE job and no help from the self-employed income support scheme or Universal Credit.

“It took a little while for the reality to hit,” says Sam. “The point where we cancelled the event for Brighton Fringe [usually held in May and June] was where I thought, ‘OK, this is going to go on for a while.’ We can all see now that the reality for this industry is dreadful.

“It’s quite stressful that I can’t see myself working until summer again. The reality is that I will have to try and go back to some sort of regular work. It’s not as easy as just picking up another job in an industry that I haven’t worked in for five years. There are a lot of people in the same boat so I’m not very hopeful.”

The loss of work is not only a financial blow for Sam – it’s a loss of identity, a loss of independence and a loss of a vital coping mechanism to deal with her mental health.

She was diagnosed with anxiety at 21 and started receiving treatment that allowed her to hold down work in HR. But a traumatic event in her personal life at the age of 30 changed all that. Sam decided to make a career change for the benefit of her mental health, turning her previous volunteering in theatre into a working life made up of self-employed, freelance work and part-time work on a zero-hours contract.

“I decided to take the hit and spend more time doing things I enjoyed,” she says. “I had no training or background in the industry, I just really enjoyed making shows happen and making something exciting. It was a more fulfilling way of life.”

Now Covid-19 has not only taken away that life but also caused her mental health to suffer.

Sam MMHPI RORA
Sam MMHPI case study dropin RORA 1429
The loss of work has had a damaging effect on Sam's mental health (Credit: Supplied)

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned back in June that the deterioration in mental health during the first two months of lockdown was “of a magnitude unlike anything seen in recent years” with 7.2 million people aged over 16 experiencing a mental health problem “much more than usual”.

For Sam, the mental toll was a heavy one.

“That makes the other stuff going on in your head more bearable,” says Sam. “So losing all of my work completely took away my coping mechanism for my mental health problems.

“I think it has been quite a quick spiral downwards. I was in a really poor place for parts of lockdown. I’d gone a while without having to be on antidepressants or in the care of a GP.

“I’ve gone very quickly from being able to manage it myself to really not being able to stay on top of it and having to go back into psychiatric care. Also that care doesn’t really exist unless you can pay for it and that is not a luxury I can afford at the moment.”

Sam returned to work briefly for a theatre test event, but there is no more work on the horizon.

The mental health income gap

Sam is not alone. Last week the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) revealed that people living with mental health problems are more exposed to financial hardship due to Covid-19.

There is already a significant income gap, with the 6.4 million people in England affected by anxiety and depression earning an annual median income of £18,200 per year – £8,400 less than those without, who pocket £26,600.

The research also found that mental health problems mean someone is more likely to be out of work, in low-paid occupations or to be reliant on benefits to get by. 

MMHPI’s head of research and policy Conor D’Arcy told The Big Issue that there needs to be a shift in how employers view mental health struggles and work patterns to account for a workforce affected by the pandemic.

He said: “There are big concerns about what the process of applying for a job will be like, whether it be soft discrimination where you look at someone’s CV and there is a gap in it due to their health so it is an easy way to rule them out, especially when people are getting lots of applicants for a job.”

The Big Issue launched the Ride Out Recession Alliance to help people like Sam, who have seen their livelihoods threatened or ripped away by the devastating impact of Covid-19.

Throughout the recession we will be working to come up with the vital solutions to prevent homelessness and protect jobs.

Tell us your stories and your ideas

Has your life been affected by the pandemic? Do you have an idea about how people’s jobs and livelihoods could be secured? We want to share your story and bring together different thinking to form some solutions. Get in touch – email rora@bigissue.com