“There’s an old saying, you can’t keep
what you got unless you give it away.”
Billy Deacon and the rest of the team at IATSE Local 479 have always taken that old saying to heart. But over the past year, it’s taken up a special kind of resonance.
IATSE – the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – represents those who make magic happen behind the scenes. Make-up artists, editors, audio visual technicians, stagehands – all of the people it takes to make movies and television come alive on our screens.
Back in March 2020, more than 120,000 IATSE jobs had already been lost to the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. While filming has picked back up around the world and in Georgia, so many film industry workers have been able to get back to the grind, the pandemic has still raged on. With shut down rules constantly in flux, anxiety over the vaccine and COVID-safety protocols on sets, the future is still murky for many.
“In the best of times, our industry is very high pressure, it’s very demanding. Our people work long hours, they’re separated from their families, they travel a lot,” said Deacon, Director of Substance Abuse Recovery Program at IATSE 479 – which represents film and television production workers from mostly Alabama and Georgia. “In the very best of times this is a hard, stressful way to make a living. With what’s going on in the world today, with COVID, the lay-offs, the shut downs – it’s exacerbated a situation that’s already hard.”
Right now, if you go to IATSE 479’s website, you’ll find a small blue box on the right hand side of your screen that says “Need Help?” By clicking on that box, you’ll find a note from Deacon, followed by a plethora of recovery and mental health services.
According to Deacon, information about recovery services for things like addiction have been available for IATSE 479 members for some time now.
“We compiled as much information as we possibly could,” he said. “Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous – any possible issue that our members may have.”
Adding mental health services to that comprehensive online list is a relatively new step for IATSE 479. But over the past year, it’s proved to be a necessary one.
Deacon said IATSE’s main office in New York has recognized mental health issues as a prominent issue for its members right now, but he also knew that from his own experience. During the past six months, Duncan said, he’s seen an uptick in the number of members reaching out for help with depression, anxiety and more.
“The mental health issue – it’s not just the film industry, it’s everybody across the country,” Deacon said.
The effect the coronavirus pandemic has had on mental health over the past year is one that can’t be overstated. Forty-one percent of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in January 2021, consistent with data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August of 2020 that showed 40% of U.S. adults were struggling with mental health or substance abuse in June of last year. CDC data from early 2020 also showed an increase in drug-related overdoses, coinciding with COVID-19 lockdowns.
Those mental health statistics and the number of calls coming from members struggling with their mental health led the IATSE 479 team to act.
“Specifically in the last six months, I’ve gotten numerous phone calls from people who are saying, ‘I’m at my wits end,” Deacon said. “What do I do?’”
That’s where “Need Help” comes in. From the outside, it might seem to be a simple fix – just putting as many resources as you can in one place. But streamlining the member dashboard, the public webpage, and making things as easy to find as possible can be a massive help to someone in need.
“There are so many avenues that people could go through, just through our website, to get all the help they need,” Deacon said.
In the event a member doesn’t know which recovery program might be the best for them, Deacon’s own number is listed on the site, and he’s available to give them guidance. He said the often long turnaround times waiting for a counselor made it clear there needed to be an option for immediate relief.
“A couple of times when I first got these calls, I was trying to reach out and find counselors or psychologists for these people, just to give them a contact number,” Deaconsaid. “What I found is most of these people are booked out weeks and months in advance.”
Resources readily available on the “Need Help” page include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Georgia’s Mobile Crisis Services for depression and anxiety, Alcoholics Anonymous, Georgia Overdose Prevention, Narcotics Anonymous, National Problem Gambling Helpline, Gamblers Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery and Overeasters Anonymous – all in one place.
“When people are in crisis, they don’t need to wait three weeks to see a psychologist,” Deacon said. “They need some help right then and there.”
Another helpful tool members of IATSE 479 have at their disposal is the organization’s Hardship Committee. Jobs in the film industry can be extremely physically demanding. The committee was created in 2013 as a way to assist members who were suffering from some sort of illness or injury that might keep them from returning to work.
“If they did not have enough finances in their CAPP account – which is what their insurance is paid out of – we would supplement that to keep them covered until they were healthy and able to return to work,” Vice President of IATSE 479, Whit Norris, said.
Norris said the Hardship Committee has helped members suffering with everything from debilitating injuries to the addiction recovery process. In the past, the Hardship Committee has paid bills, car payments, rent payments, and more.
On the local’s website, members are encouraged to reach out to the Hardship Committee if they or someone in their immediate family has been diagnosed with a condition that prevents them from working, they have experienced the loss of an immediate family member causing a large or unexpected loss of income, of if they or their family are the victims of an unexpected catastrophe.
Last year, everyone in the world experienced one of those conditions with the coronavirus pandemic. Norris said he couldn’t for sure say there had been an uptick in members reaching out to the Hardship Committee for assistance, but the film industry – and IATSE specifically – were affected by loss.
“Everybody suffered from depression last year,” he said. “I want to say it hit me around July. We weren’t built just to sit at home as human beings. That’s just not in our DNA.”
As far as mental health programming in the future, IATSE 479 is focused on making sure its members know where to find help. It will continue to send out email blasts to members and run social media campaigns to remind them these resources exist, and they don’t have to wait.
“We want to be available to people everyday, because you never know when these issues are going to come up,” Deacon said. “You never know when somebody’s going to have the realization, ‘Hey, I need help. And I need it bad and quick.’”