Mental Illness, the Entertainment Industry, and COVID

Debilitating Chronic Mental Illness

As a mental health activist and “peer” I have come across this issue frequently while trying to do business in the entertainment industry. One of the things I have noticed is that there is little to nothing about acknowledging those of us who are deemed unable to work full time, living on support, and for many of us: in and out of being institutionalized. It is common knowledge that many who suffer with mental illness tend to have forms of natural and raw talent, sometimes gifted in unusual ways. The sad thing is that, although this “industry” greatly benefits from gifted people, it can also be the most traumatic, exclusive, and predatory field there is; and things should actually be the other way around.

While in our second year of the Pandemic, there’s been a lot of talk about mental health self care, and other issues relating to those who suffer things like anxiety and depression as a result. Although awareness is a good thing, this can be counterproductive if we refuse to acknowledge the difference between high functioning influencers who develop some symptoms as compared to those who’s lives are basically ruined because of a lifetime of serious mental and emotional disorders.

Traveling the nation during this crisis while constantly advocating for my entertainment career and my care has made it clear to me that with all of this mental health chatter going on, there’s actually more misinformation and discrimination toward people in my level of functioning than before the Pandemic. That’s why I am specific when discussing this topic, because there’s a deep uncrossable chasm between highly visible people who develop some symptoms of mental illness due to certain environments and trauma compared to those who live a lifetime of what I call “Debilitating Chronic Mental Illness”.

I’m not the only one on Backstage that’s in this category. I’ve also found that folks like us are not only lacking in visibility and rank, we are seen as difficult to work with, and not worth their time. There are forms of disabilities and types of industries that accommodate those with special needs, however this is a deadly combination. Just look at the statistics for self-harm even among recognized talent who suffer from mental illness. Now imagine all the peers who are not visible to the public, and all the statistics that we don’t have access to.

Since around 2016, I have made a constant effort to reveal my disability status to those I do business with, including contractors, large transactions, and even bankers, potential friends and dates in addition to a lot of people who I am taking large risks about revealing vulnerable things about me. It’s part of my being an amateur sociologist, an activist, conducting long-term social experiments, personal empowerment, and overall stupidity. I audition for a part and mention that my goal is to get enough exposure that I can work my way off of being on Social Security Disability while sharing my story about living and coping with mental illness, and surviving harmful practices like Conversion Therapy .

If you are open about your disabilities and suspect that you have been discriminated against in the entertainment field, please contact me and consider being a part of my documentation and advocacy projects. Also, even if you’re not public about your disability status and believe that your suffering has been the catalyst for closing “doors” when it comes to your work, this is another reason to act. In addition to that, no matter what your professional background and potential is, if your low functioning level has branded you in any of the following characteristics, you may actually be a subject of vocational discrimination:

-Treated as expendable and disposable

-A professional who is treated like they just have a “hobby” no matter how qualified

-A “center stage” type who is forced to be upstaged and hidden by those who are more powerful

-Treated like an outsider no matter how “connected”

-Vulnerable to scams and other forms of abuse

-Unwillingness to resolve important issues

-Judged for having character flaws as a result of mental and emotional disorders

-No fair consideration to whether their work has value

-Branded as a follower instead of a leader

-Aggressive, and often passive aggressive forms of isolation and unfair exclusion from work opportunities

-Forced to be buried among amateur and inexperienced talent

-Not given proper credit for contributing

-Not given fair compensation and often having to “pay” just to work

The Americans With Disabilities Act does not officially protect and enable the mentally disabled when it comes to fields such as arts and entertainment, and ironically, we are very involved in these industries. The ADA along with the entertainment world seems to pride itself in giving support to various kinds of disadvantaged people, however, the mentally disabled are treated in ways that is actually counterproductive; not only in my experience, but from many I have chatted with who are in the same predicament. The rise of social media has actually made this more difficult, and although COVID has forced us to get more creative in how we do business, it’s also been another excuse for professionals to further exclude and take advantage of disadvantaged talent.

There are exceptions to this, especially when it comes to artists who became highly visible before they became noticeably symptomatic. There are also peers who just happen to be lucky or privileged enough to be given the spotlight. I have made it part of my career to add elements of my personal activism in addition to my self care when it comes to trying to do business with entertainment professionals. You’d think that identifying as a “mentally disabled” artist would trigger a compassionate response from those who identify with being sympathetic to those who suffer; however it has actually been very counterproductive to my career. In fact, in recent years, the more transparent I am about my status I can basically say that it is ruining my reputation. Coming out of the closet as a gay man in 2006 has brought me very little exclusion in my life, with the exception of a handful of bigoted churches, obviously. I also think that being a sexual minority has gotten me some advantages when it comes to being an artist and an entertainer, which should also be quite obvious. (Sometimes I wonder if influencers are afraid that I might use the “Gay Card” if they were to be honest about them wanting to exclude me, and thus try to slam the door in my face in a way that is concealed so carefully that nobody suspects anything. But than again, these practices are common to anyone who isn’t perceived as being “high ranking”.)

When it comes to stigma, I’d say that the common combination of living with Debilitating Chronic Mental Illness and my current “disability status” in connection to the very field that I am trained, experienced, and gifted with; this goes way beyond stigma: it’s bigotry. I really should stop telling people that I do business with my real goal because it keeps making me less visible and less valuable; however, for the same reason why us queers come out of the closet and are proud of something that we can’t change, in principal I shouldn’t hide this either. The Federal Government and the Social Security Administration has deemed me unable to work and gives me some money to keep me from starving to death. In addition to that, everywhere I go since I got on SSDI in 2009 sincerely believes that it’s everyone’s goal to keep me BUSY and INVISIBLE. That’s what the world of arts and entertainment is also doing, no matter what I have to contribute nor my professional background. They are, for the most part, very nice to me. In fact, so polite that I often believe that I am being treated as a seasoned professional and an insider. Then comes the silence. I thought it would be funny to just keep talking. That’s what I am doing now.

Being treated like an outcast from certain communities and vocations could also be a result of someone who has little to nothing to contribute in addition to lack of exposure as a result. It could be that someone believes they have a greater talent than they actually possess. There are also those who are just plain abusive and are too unsafe to have access to the public and shouldn’t work with other artists. Sometimes it just has to do with talent that for various reasons goes unrecognized. (Imagine being a beautiful super talented and super smart woman in a hyper-oppressive islamic state, or something to that effect.) Before I was outspoken about my disabilities I found that I was excluded a lot as well. I believe that had a lot to do with moving out of state, not having the “right” friends (or lack of) and basically not having a lot of visibility. What I am trying to point out, is that my visibility and social life suffered as a direct RESULT of my disability status, whether I revealed it or not. This is also my point about when disabled talent are treated like they need to be excluded for lack of recognition, seen as dangerous, and not even considered whether they even have anything of value – directly because of their cognitive and emotional functioning level. In education, law enforcement, and other entities, banishment and forms of isolation are often the last result when it comes to punishment. In the arts, and related communities, this seems to be the first kind of effort in resolving an alleged or actual conflict. To make things even more ridiculous, the most common “crime” a mentally ill person is punished for has to do more with being seen as a nuisance or an annoyance.

One of the boons of my constant foolish disclosures is that I give powerful people an informed decision when they decide to exclude me in a world that I believe I belong to work and thrive in. To make matters even more funny, I get regular feedback from my audiences about the value of my work which further confuses those gatekeepers who are working so absurdly to keep me out of the public eye. When people like us do gain that kind of influence and recognition, that’s when things get very strange. Until then, I doubt anything is going to change and the way things are going these days, I can’t imagine things getting significantly better, only worse. When it comes to diversity, it’s taken a long time to include racial and sexual minorities and I think we’ve improved over the last several decades when it comes to the entertainment industry. It’s just that there’s so much misinformation going on about disability issues and mental health, it’s harder to change something when we think we are working on a significant solution; but when it comes to those of us who specifically deal with this thing I am calling a lifetime of “Debilitating Chronic Mental Illness”, we are nowhere close to actual inclusion and equality.

Fake Zappa

AKA, Jason T. Ingram

Multimedia Artist and Mental Health Activist

Key Largo, Florida