Ben Steel has been in the entertainment industry for decades and has experienced the good and not-so-good side of being in the spotlight and also behind the scenes. As he battled through his own mental illness during the production of his documentary, The Show Must Go On, he learned not only about how common mental illness was within the entertainment industry, but also learned a lot about himself and he took a few moments to chat about these learnings from his Melbourne home.
Tell us a bit about yourself. . . .
I was born in Melbourne which is where I currently live and have also spent a lot of time in Sydney and overseas. I don’t have children but do have a golden retriever named Buddy!
You have been in the entertainment industry since you were a child both in-front of and behind the camera and also on stage. What has been some of your personal and professional highlights?
I’ve been in the entertainment industry since I was a kid both in front of and behind the camera.
Ever since I was kid I had a passion to become an actor since I was about six years old, when I did a poetry reading on stage at primary school and from that moment I kind of got the acting bug. It was the first time in my life that I really felt like I belonged somewhere and I really fitted in. So I basically pursued that feeling my whole life. I put everything into pursuing that career which at the time, felt really good because unlike some of my friends around me who didn’t know what job they wanted to do when they grew up, I very clearly did know what I wanted to do and it gave me a sense of purpose and real focus.
As I got older, I realised that that had become such an integral part of my identity that I really had to have a close look at that as my identity because when I wasn’t acting, when I wasn’t getting work, it really made me feel like I wasn’t succeeding. That I was a failure. And that was a big part of my discovery on what I had to do to unpack that part of my personality in order to have a more healthy wellbeing and life in general.
Some of my highlights in the industry was working with Baz Luhrmann in Moulin Rouge as a production runner which led on to another random memorable moment when the studio next to us was filming Star Wars and I got to have a chance encounter with R2-D2. To me that just amalgamated my childhood love of movies and characters into my actual contribution to the industry, which was quite special and meaningful.
The entertainment industry can also be very challenging. What have been some of the more trying times that you have had to overcome?
I was lucky enough to land a role in Home and Away in my mid-twenties and that was the first time in my life that I had full-time acting work, which as actor, when you’re used to getting short-term roles and small jobs felt amazing and like I was doing what I was meant to be doing every day. And then sadly, about two and a half years later, my character got cut from the show.
That was a real blow for me personally. It was my first and only job to date that I’d actually been fired from. And not dealing with that reality and not processing it thoroughly, I believe contributed to my overbearing sense of loss and depression which came on years later. So that was very challenging and also working interstate or overseas and not having the support network of family and friends.
As actors, or anyone in the entertainment industry, our work schedule is rarely in sync with family and friends with shoots happening on the weekends or long days on set, which can further contribute to that feeling of not being in sync and connected with society.
Financial instability is also a massive issue and challenge and now as an industry collectively with COVID-19 restrictions, we’re going through a moment where the rest of society works differently than we do which is evident in the job-keeper support stimulus announced for the pandemic and which a vast majority of the entertainment industry is relying on to survive.
These are all challenges that myself and anyone in the entertainment industry, and many other industries are having to adjust and adapt to.
Tell us a bit about your own mental health journey . .
My identity was really closely linked to my value of myself and who I thought I was. So when I wasn’t acting or getting work within the industry, I truly felt like I was a failure. I felt that I wasn’t good enough. I felt like the whole world and the industry and everything external to me was all stacked up against me. Which ultimately wasn’t the reality. It was just the reality that I was stuck in. It wasn’t what was really going but it felt like the world was against me.
But, it really was just an internal struggle with myself and how I felt about myself.
For me, at that point I was not fully aware that I was struggling with depression and anxiety, but I certainly felt like I was struggling and things ‘weren’t working.’ It was then that I embarked on a journey to make a documentary on mental health and wellbeing in the entertainment industry from getting a sense from my colleagues and other people that I was speaking to, that there were so many others struggling with these dilemmas and challenges.
You lost a good friend to suicide which you talk about in your documentary, The Show Must Go On. Tell us a bit about him and what inspired you to make the documentary . . . .
Some really important information had come out from Entertainment Assist at Victoria University that highlight and put data behind, what I guess, the industry was generally feeling anecdotally and that is that suicide attempts in the Entertainment industry are twice of that of the general population. Anxiety symptoms were ten times higher than the general population and depression symptoms were five times higher than the general population. Which fuelled me further and ultimately (the documentary) took me three and a half years to make. In that time, I learned so much about myself, my industry and my colleagues. Ultimately, mental ill health, is universal no matter what the industry.
Like many people, like many industries, we have people guiding us and mentoring us. When I was making the documentary, The Show Must Go On, my acting mentor Dave O’Connor took his own life. It came out of the blue and really cut me deeply to the core. I think because I was struggling at the same time, I felt the impact even more deeply. I was already, in my own life, kind of going down that path in my own mind. I was feeling so low and so much of a failure that I was seriously considering suicide. So to have someone so close to me, to have done that, it definitely made it a potentially more real way out for myself. As difficult as it is to admit, it definitely made it a bit more real.
But it was through talking to people and researching this particular topic, I have learned that there is such a thing that when you have been touched by suicide, there is a real and increased risk of that action being made more real. I feel like it needs to be acknowledged that if you are touched by suicide that there needs to be an awareness and more conversations on how much that impacts people and their way of thinking. And we need to be vigilant if we do have those thoughts in seeking help.
What has been some of the best advice you have received while in the industry about self-care from colleagues or friends/family?
Prior to me making the documentary, I would say there had been very limited if any at all, advice (on self-care and mental health) from colleagues or the industry, as something that we needed to talk about.
Sam Neil gave some really good advice that he separates his acting from his identity. Acting is what he does, not who he is and when he said those words to me while making the film, they spoke a hundred truths to my heart and unlocked in me something that I really needed to hear.
When you are personally feeling stressed or overwhelmed, what are some strategies and tools that you use to help get you through those tough times?
Things that I have learned to do which I know bring me peace and calmness is going surfing and working out at the gym. Walking my dog I also find very calming. For me it’s the physical and mental links to activities that really helps me. I haven’t been able to fully get into meditation, but I do do ‘minute meditations’ which helps me ground and centre myself if I do get overwhelmed. A lot of stress and fear comes from outside of myself, in my past and my future so I find if I can just bring myself to the present, this is a huge help for me.
What advice would you give someone who is struggling with their own mental health?
I think when you are facing a mental health challenge, it can feel quite unusual and uncomfortable and overwhelming and dark. So when you’re in that space, it can feel almost impossible that life can be any other way and what you’re going through, no one could understand. I think that’s the big problem.
What we need to know is that 'you aren’t alone.' There are others that are feeling these feelings, there is help and support around you in your immediate circle and also outside your circle with professional support.
It's also important to remember that some people might not pick up on your subtle mood changes, which is why it’s so important to reach out and communicate how you are feeling and encourage anyone who is really struggling, to reach out. If it’s a recent development or long-term struggle, it can seem to become the ‘new normal’ way of being - just know that this truly is temporary and you can get through it.
In my own struggles, I see my depression as a gift, which may sound strange but I see it as a sign that I have left something unacknowledged and need to work on and this now helps me with making a mind shift. It’s like if you have a cut on your toe, it’s just a cut but if it’s left untreated, it can get infected and become all consuming.
You own your own production company, Ben Steel Films, do you have any more of your own projects in the works?
The film was always about connecting people to issues, hearing people’s story and spreading awareness on mental health and mental illness. But the heavy lifting is now where we have to continue the discussion and offer help and resources. We had planned on a documentary and wellness tour around the country which is obviously on hold at the moment. But I am busy currently developing two projects which I'm excited to show when they're finished.
How would you sum up the state of your current mental health?
With the COVID-19 restrictions, it was challenging not being able to go surfing or workout at the gym which are my outlets. I'm still having to deal with emotions that are coming up and learning not to push them aside. If we weren’t going through such challenging times with the pandemic, I can safely say that my mental state is good, positive and I think that’s evidence on how others can help and support you through challenging times and proof that, like myself, you can get through it.
Are you happy?
In one of the interviews I did with an actor friend of mine, Martin Dingle-Wall, he shared some thoughts with me on happiness. Is happiness attainable 100% of the time? He shifted the question to ‘wholeness.’ Rather than ‘are you feeling happy’ he would ask ‘are you feeling whole?'. Wholeness includes pain, fear, happiness, all of the human emotions and experiences. If you are feeling 'whole', it feels like a much more compassionate place to come from. If you are pursuing happiness at the expense of everything else, how happy are you really feeling?
So to answer the question, I am feeling whole.
Article By: Kelly Malloy