Economics, Mental Health, and “The Industry”
A Reflection of Sorts by Drew Weinstein
About a year after I graduated from Ithaca College with a Bachelors of Arts in Drama and a Music Minor, I experienced my first of what was to become many panic attacks. Half a year or so after graduating, I moved to New York City to pursue my dream of creating and directing what I perceived to be “experimental” and “immersive” works of theatre and performance (I know those are kind of useless buzz words to describe works of art, but I was 22 and didn’t know better). I spent a few months working fairly grueling hours at a Dos Toros before ending up with two equally as exhausting production assistant gigs. Both jobs ended within days of each other at the beginning of March and I found myself suddenly without any work or any prospects of finding work. What I perceived as a sudden collapse of opportunity brought me to the steps of the Jefferson Market branch of the New York Public Library in a bout of full on panic.
These attacks were and remain a painfully clear marker that something was going wrong in my life. However, this is not an isolated incident, nor is it unique to me. Though at best frustrating and at times fully debilitating, these kinds of episodes are far from uncommon. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults live with mental illness, with young adults ages 18-25 experiencing mental illness at higher rates than any other demographic. There are a myriad of possible reasons why these statistics are so staggering. However, there is a connection between this increased mental pressure on younger generations, key economic shifts in most Western democratic countries beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the current arts and freelance economy that I believe is important to highlight.
The remaining essay is a continual jump between a few somewhat scattered thoughts and ideas that hopefully come together in the end (but might not), beginning with a series of inquiries I began making after stumbling upon Ruth Whippman’s NY Times opinion piece on the nature of the modern gig economy. Ms. Whippman, author of America the Anxious and The Pursuit of Happiness, is a British journalist who has done a significant amount of research on the relationship between the concept of happiness and anxiety. In her recent opinion piece, Whippman describes the increased pressures of the modern freelance world as a “special hellspring of anxiety.” When browsing through a few months ago, this certainly caught my eye and I began digging further. On one hand, many articles and press releases of late (such as this gem released by the online freelance platform Upwork) seem to equate the rise of the freelance workforce as akin to the coming of the next Messiah, Ms. Whippman remains skeptical. She describes a mass selling frenzy where, as a freelancer, she spends only a minor amount of time actually doing her job while the majority goes to a variety of “unpaid micro-labor” that includes “Ambivalently ‘maintaining a presence on social media,’ attempting to sell a semi-fictional, much more appealing version of myself in the vain hope that this might somehow help me sell some actual stuff at some unspecific future time.”
This insatiable need to promote and self-curate is driven by our current market, which features a collapse of the middle class, a general lack of resources for younger artists in an increasingly expensive world, and a more peculiar psychological drive. “…the sad truth is that many of us would probably make more money stacking shelves or working at the drive-through than selling our ‘thing.’ The real prize is deeper, more existential. What this is really about, for many of us, is a roaring black hole of psychological need.” Though perhaps over-dramatic, I find Whippman’s thoughts very relatable. I have placed the “thing” I am selling (i.e. my artistic output or work) at the bedrock of my identity as a human being. “Theatre and sound artist” isn’t just a fancy title for myself that I put on my website, it’s a method for defining who I am as a person and my own self-worth.
I want to take a step back for a second and say that I understand that in many ways I “chose” to pursue the life of an artist which for centuries has been a financially difficult proposition. I am not trying to complain about the financial difficulties of the arts and of individual artists because those are already very well documented. What I am more interested in is the tether between artistic output and self-worth. There’s an old joke about friends in the theatre industry in New York running into each other. The first question they’ll ask each other is always “what are you working on?” rather than “How are you?” What generally isn’t discussed is that whenever I get asked this question, I feel an insatiable urge to sound as impressive as humanly possible “…well, I’m gearing up for a festival that I’m the associate producer on … I’m creating my solo show, it’s slow going but I have some irons in the fire for future productions … my friend wrote a fantastic play that I’m directing and we’re going to be premiering it in the Spring…” I understand that this impulse is not entirely malicious. Many of my friends work in the industry, we all want to know about one another’s work, and it’s nice to exchange information about projects and creative pursuits. Yet, the desire to seem impressive or busy is concerning and takes a discernable psychological toll. Just the other day I had a friend tell me that they thought of me as “one of those people who is always working on something,” and it was probably the best I’ve felt about myself in weeks. Acclaimed theatre director, Anne Bogart, comments on this rather eloquently in her short essay The Business of Busyness, “The danger with busyness is that it can become the baseline of one’s experience. We can live in thrall to it and then forget that we have the agency to make our own choices… does busyness make us feel important?” My answer in a heartbeat is – “YES! Good God does it make me feel important!” And when I have a lot going on and I don’t have the time to sit with myself and consider where my life is actually headed, everything seems fine. The sense of self-importance created by a constant stream of activity and pursuits acts like a drug that sedates me when I’m under its influence.
But what happens when I’m not? Where does this leave someone when the work dries up for a period of time? I am always talking about wanting and needing more time for the real passion projects, the work I dream of making, but when I find or make time for these projects, I end up feeling like shit about myself as a person. Why does having spare time continually thrust me into a bout of existential depression which ends up depleting the time that I so desperately wanted for myself in the first place? And how do you fight against the feelings of depression and lack of motivation when everything around you seems to remind you of all the work, opportunities, and experiences that you’re missing out on (looking at you Facebook…)?
I would strongly suggest that, while we may have a degree of control over our own personal perceptions and attitude, these depressive experiences are also products of our current economic system and cultural values. I know I’m making quite a jump here, but we have to consider that the United States currently operates under a neoliberal economic model designed to elevate the market and minimize government intervention in an attempt to foster “unconstrained competition between self-interested individuals.” Neoliberal economic theory was initially developed after WWII as partially an economic means of preventing further rise of communist or fascist governments and partially as a way for a handful of people to get very rich. By re-distributing wealth to certain individuals (and remember that corporations are legally considered people with rights…) rather than the state, it was designed to keep people in competition with one another for lucrative financial opportunities. One intended effect of this was that individuals would be less likely to band together under the kind of cultural or state nationalisms which led key European countries to fascism. However, it was not significantly taken up in policy until the 1970s when many North American and European countries began embracing “…laissez-faire governance committed to the advancement of market-based competition and reward.”
As the theorists behind neoliberal economics knew, any shift in economic policy would have a ripple effect on our cultural value system. According to a recent study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill, “Dominant cultural values of society at any one point in time are reflected in the norms of its social and civic institutions and these institutions shape individual attitudes, values, beliefs, and personalities.” Simply put, the cultural values of the United States of America (and many other countries) shifted towards competition and away from interpersonal collaboration in response to this change in economic policy. This, in turn placed a “…heavier burden on recent generations of young people to strive against one another under the auspices of meritocracy…” Meritocracy is the belief that economic wealth and social status should be based solely on the merit of the individual. The United States projects this cultural value despite a truly horrific history of institutional inequality based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion and sexual orientation which continues today. It falsely claims that no matter who you are, hard work and self-perseverance alone are enough for you to achieve your dreams. What it actually creates is a doctrine that “falsely and insidiously connects the principles of educational and professional achievement, status, and wealth with innate personal value.”
When you consider this cultural ideology in relation to our general well-being, the current mental health crises is perhaps less shocking. Curran and Hill focus their investigation specifically on the concept of perfectionism. According to their research, three key types of perfectionism have increased dramatically over the last 27 years. The most significant increase has been in socially prescribed perfectionism. This kind of perfectionism revolves around the perceived demands of others in a social context. Not surprisingly, “…rising socially prescribed perfectionism dovetails with observations of rising externality of control, anxiety, and neurosis among young people…” This is perhaps even more compounded by the unrestrained rise of social media and the increasing pressure to present an online version of yourself which is both self-realizing and effortless.
What is also worth noting is the rise in self-oriented perfectionism in which “individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluations.” Though this form of perfectionism contains a useful and motivational component, when left unchecked it can make it impossible to derive lasting satisfaction from one’s own accomplishments and creates a feedback loop of needing to constantly achieve beyond one’s previous potential. So, while some might look at my artistic and career trajectory in a positive light, I am unable to see it as anything other than not enough, a thought which feeds back on itself and contributes to regular waves of depression, anxiety, and panic. This is magnified by the constant rampage of social media posts which feed us stories of everyone else’s successes. Successes that are out there waiting for you if only you are capable, smart, creative, disciplined, or just plain good enough to achieve it.
Sadly, there are thousands of other people endlessly battling for those same few opportunities. I, like many people my age, have been sold fantastic ideas of what our lives can be (if we just work hard enough…), which are highly unrealistic given our current socioeconomic climate. Somewhere along the line I bought in and shackled my self-worth to these ideas and dreams of myself. I told myself that if I worked hard and struggled against the odds, I could live a life of excitement, creativity, and self-realization. It wasn’t until this ideology had already become a core part of my belief system that I thought to question its intentions as anything other than supportive. After all, this is what many people in my generation were told. I didn’t expect it to be easy (to be fair, no one said that it would be), but I held onto an expectation that it could happen nonetheless. But this magical “it” is highly, and I’d argue intentionally, illusive. Our lives are tossed about in an economic and cultural model that must grow in order to survive. In order to get the most out of us and propel growth, this model needs to keep us wanting more and competing with each other for “it” rather than settling into our lives or roles in the workforce in a healthy or community-driven capacity. I have personally internalized this by developing perfectionist tendencies which in turn leave me unsatisfied with any achievements because I will still be comparing myself to my peers. This social comparison fuels the need to compete instead of collaborate, in hopes that my own personal career will grow and flourish to newer and newer heights so that I can someday “make it.” All the while, the “it” keeps moving further and further away. There is no limit to how far “it” can move because someone else will always have more than me. No achievement will ever make me feel the fulfillment or actualization I’ve been sold because it’s not supposed to.
So, it’s no wonder I began having panic attacks when I first moved to the city. And it should come as no surprise that they have continued. These attacks are at best explainable and at worst part of the plan. And unfortunately, I the artistic industry in New York City is complicit in this plan. To caveat, in no way am I claiming that this is a specific problem to the arts (this issue spans all industry under our current socioeconomic model). But how do we, as artists, hope to connect with others or create positive change through our work if we aren’t willing to change our own behavior? How can we show people that there is a life outside of a soul-crushing economic and cultural model if we take part in it and hurt ourselves and each other in the process? This isn’t to say that the individuals who make up the collective theatre and performance industry don’t care for each other’s well-being. On the contrary, some of the kindest, most generous, and wonderful individuals make up the New York City arts community. But are we not to some degree trapped within a larger system that is meant to keep us competing? Afterall, we’re expected to constantly schmooze to get ahead and spend our time and energy presenting an often-unrealistic image of ourselves to attract followers and appeal to producers and presenters. Further, when we continue to communicate even at a social level on the basis of our work or output are we not allowing this system to churn on (even if said work aims at taking down the system itself)?
I don’t profess to know the answer to these questions – and there is a world of nuance and research that would be required to properly understand how our institutional and interpersonal models in the arts world contribute to the larger economic and cultural ideology. However, I do think these are worth asking. Even if the system is stacked against our mental well-being, becoming aware of the cards we’ve been dealt can perhaps allow us to take steps in addressing our own psychology, our industry, and our interpersonal relationships. How do we define our self-worth, and how do we perceive the worth of others? How can we shift our individual ideologies away from this need to keep busy, keep relevant, and grow our careers without becoming “irrelevant” and out of work? How can I personally shift my internal perceptions of my-self and others? I know I can’t speak for anyone else, but this mental ideology is wrecking me from the inside out. I have the privilege to be able to live in this city and pursue my artistic dreams. Further, I have the privilege of being a straight white man in a world hellbent on giving straight white men a massive social, economic, and cultural advantage. And somehow, I’ve still found a way to be miserable. That’s seriously insane. Writing out these thoughts in what appears to be a fairly haphazard manner is a first step in beginning to examining the reasons behind my mental frustration. My hope is that through this examination, I can work towards shedding the individualistic mindset that brought me here in the first place. And perhaps, breaking my internal cycle of competition, individualism, and anxiety can make a small crack in the larger cultural and economic systems themselves.
 Approximately 44.7 million in 2016. Additionally, 31.1% of all U.S. adults will experience any anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
 22.1% of the young adult population have experienced any mental illness (AMI).
 For the purposes here, I am defining the rise of the the freelance workforce as a statistically proven increase In workers making a living through jobs that are contract-based.
 The time frame is significant as it relates to the rise of neoliberal economic policy in Europe and North America.
Bogart, Anne. The Business of Busyness. SITI Company, 18 Dec. 2014, siti.org/content/business-busyness.
Deutschkron, Shoshana. Freelancers Predicted to Become the U.S. Workforce Majority within a Decade, with Nearly 50% of Millennial Workers Already Freelancing, Annual "Freelancing in America" Study Finds. Upwork, 28 Oct. 2017, www.upwork.com/press/2017/10/17/freelancing-in-america-2017/.
Hellebuyck, Michele, et al. “The State of Mental Health in America, 2019.” Mental Health in America, www.mentalhealthamerica.net/issues/mental-health-america-printed-re....
Whippman, Ruth. Everything Is for Sale Now. Even Us. The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/11/24/opinion/sunday/gig-economy-self-promotio....
Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2017, December 28). “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta- Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016.” Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000138