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Mental wellbeing and freelancing

Posted on May 9, 2022

The theme of this year’s #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek is loneliness. We reached out to the freelancers in our community to better understand how freelancing can impact mental wellbeing, both positively and negatively.

Edwin Lerew is a freelance script editor & assistant director and a writer/director by passion. He is currently finishing his first feature script with assistance from the Set Access/Creative Access mentorship programme and Heyday Films, and also works in student services at Kings College London.

In what ways has freelancing had a positive impact on your mental health?  

Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”  

Joe Clarke, Lean on Me (1989) 

Freelancing has forced me to have self-imposed purpose and a daily routine. For too many years, I was hoping for an institution to give me this structure. This never happened, and my mind would wallow in negative thoughts and self-pity. Anxiety and depression would take hold; myself and people around me would suffer. I got sick of this and realised if I wanted to develop my skills in the industry, and save myself from my own thoughts, I had to be self-directed. Nobody was going to hand me the ‘perfect role’ so I had to create it if I didn’t want to feel lost and depressed. I had to go out, seek opportunities, and develop my own personal schedule – something I never thought possible before this year. Doing so has done wonders for my mental health.  

Do you think working freelance presents particular challenges to your mental health? How can you overcome these challenges?

“[to deal with mental health problems] I set short-term and long-term goals.

Tyson Fury, heavyweight champion  

Not knowing when you’re going to be paid, and not having a project to occupy you, can exacerbate any underlying problems. I’ve found having relatively consistent work (and this doesn’t have to be “creative industry” work – that pressure will make things worse) gives me the bandwidth to do my projects on evenings/weekends/annual leave.

I would also advise people not to dwell; the idle mind will collapse in on itself. It needs to be nourished, not left recycling junk. Not having projects to work on will starve creativity, so develop your own. I find it useful to have multiple concepts on the go and split my time between them at their different stages of development. I treat myself like my own limited company, with different departments and teams working on different projects, all sharing the same timetable. This keeps my mind sharp and never bereft of anything to get cracking on with. Stasis is the start of self-torture. It’s not about distracting yourself. We’re filled with long-term purpose (artists tend to be) but at the cost of the short-term. For me, short-term targets, creative or personal, are critical for mental wellbeing.  

What do you do to look after your mental wellbeing as a freelancer?  

When you have someone outside the industry that cares for you, they can see when you’re not yourself.”  

Jim Breuer, actor/comedian 

Firstly: I’m lucky to have good friends and family – I keep them close and share with them. I laugh with them, talk rubbish, indulge in immaturities, see them as often as I can.  

Secondly, I regulate addictive tendencies. If I decide to play videogames for hours on end, I do it because it’s fun, not to escape negative thoughts. If I decide to re-write my screenplay for the umpteenth time, it’s because it needs it, not because I’m trying to avoid feelings.  

Thirdly, if something is burdening me, I will write it down in a journal, so it is at least addressed and put into my own words.  

Fourthly, I keep physically active and control eating habits.  

Finally: I don’t force myself to do anything unreasonable or guilt myself if things slip; that itself can turn into noxious and destructive self-talk. If you tyrannise yourself, you will rebel against yourself. In my view, self-negotiation beats self-control, always.

How do you keep a healthy work/life balance as a freelancer?  

Practice does not make perfect. It is practice, followed by a night of sleep, that leads to perfection.”  

Matthew Walker, neuroscientist

I did it terribly for about a year and got sick of it. Everyone at work was telling me about how gaunt and stressed I looked. I was anxious all the time. I decided in the last month that this had to stop. 

Now, instead of forcing myself to do and be everything at once, I order my tasks in manageable segments via a self-written worksheet: I will title the project, outline the long-term ambitions (motivation), the short-term tasks (discipline), and the progress so far (accountability & praise), along with a small section to raise concerns by notes. I reduce this to one page and one page only. I will then put it away and move onto the next until each project has a clear directive. Then and only then will I begin work. When my workload is organised in advance, I can set myself a certain time of the day to handle each task, and wrap up once my attention span bleeds out, or I get tired – not a moment longer. Having the worksheet gives me peace of mind that the project is on the right track, so I can put it out of my mind when I’m done for the day.  

A director I worked for during the first lockdown taught me a valuable word: unplug. It’s necessary to “clock out” when a project becomes more deleterious to your mental health than beneficial. It will be there tomorrow; it’s not going anywhere. Manage the obsession, as it can hurt your mind and body, as well as the quality of the work.  

What are your final tips for other freelancers to look after their mental health? 

Passion does not have a monopoly on virtue.”  

A Jedi Maxim (probably)

Be careful of passion projects. You can obsess for years, but they suffer as a result, more so when you’re at a low point, unless there’s a set of different projects, which you can do pieces of daily. Also, I think that having a daily purpose will help shield you in the rejection-prone pit that is this industry. For too long, I grew even more depressed, angry, and anxious when I was making no progress in the job market. I have learnt to put that to one side and focus on my craft during slow periods. Don’t view the day job as a death sentence and keep friends close.  

For more information about managing your mental health, read our resource.

If you’re struggling to cope with your mental health, there are resources available to help you. Please speak to your doctor or NHS 111. For urgent support, Samaritans are also here to listen at any time, day or night. Call free on 116 123 or visit the Samaritans website.

You can also get in touch with your Local Mind team.