An actor’s life for me?
Naomi Hynd had written to The Psychologist, querying whether her work with performers and drama schools might interest our readers. Five minutes into the interview I was stunned by the sheer amount of work and training Naomi packs into an average day. I needed some initial bearings. I asked her to describe her life at the moment.
‘I have a two-and-a-half-year-old son and a busy husband who needs looking after! I work three days a week in the NHS as a Highly Specialist Clinical Psychologist. I’m part of a neuropsychology service and specialise in stroke, working on two inpatient wards but mostly in the community. I am just finishing the PgDip in Clinical Neuropsychology from Glasgow University and applying for the Qualification in Clinical Neuropsychology.’
Naomi’s private practice addresses a variety of conditions, but one of her core passions is mental health promotion. ‘We should be helping to pre-empt problems rather than letting them develop. In the NHS I provide psychoeducation to large numbers of stroke patients in lecture format and work closely with staff teams and outside organisations. I’m also trying to get drama schools to provide actors with the skills that will last them through their training and careers.’
This latter focus – the reason Naomi contacted us – links to her own career as an actor. ‘This was on hold for a while but it’s picking up again. I’ve just signed with a new agent who is putting me forward for commercials and small parts that I can fit around my NHS commitments.’
‘They knock you down to build you up… this can be brutal’
Naomi’s acting interests link in with psychology’s growing role in shaping a variety of communications (from health promotion to commercial advertising). It also links in with previous interviewees who have applied psychology in other performing roles – musicians and dancers, for instance. What has psychology got to do with acting? Naomi is clear about this. ‘Three people dropped out of my year at drama school with mental health problems, and certain personality types can be drawn to the profession. It’s a tough life, so in training they knock you down to build you up, but this can be brutal. My tutor at drama school advised me to have a nose job (which I resisted). There’s definitely a pressure to get thin and look good.
‘Once you’re earning a living it doesn’t get any better. Obviously auditions involve repeated rejection. Say you get a good job, even a leading part – after the shoot or run is finished you might find yourself back waiting tables. People recognise you only to assume that you’ve become a failure. Sometimes you can be perfect for a part but still not get it… I was once turned down for a role because I was taller than the male lead! In itself, acting entails risks. Working as a drama therapist demonstrated the importance of “de-roling” patients after an exercise. Professional actors often commit completely to parts that they lose themselves. Then there are long hours and the lifestyle. They can come off stage with a buzz and search for a stimulant – smoking, alcohol, drugs or other high-risk activities. Only 1 in 20 actors earns an annual salary of over £20,000, and many spend long periods of time out of work or touring and away from home. These sorts of issues also affect directors and other backstage staff. The result is a huge range of mental health problems, not to mention drama-specific problems like stage fright. Then come the reviews of your work and the sense of failure if they are not positive. The media can be unnecessarily brutal particularly to famous actors, but what does that do to your self-esteem and sense of control?’
Naomi says it’s interesting that there isn’t much research in this area. ‘I would like to do some work with Equity, but creative professions can be suspicious of those wanting to tinker round in their processes – by explaining creativity they feel experts might destroy it.’
Are drama schools interested in this idea of mental health education? ‘I’ve worked with some London drama schools that were very open to the topic, where I’ve run workshops for actors. Currently if a student develops a mental health problem, they may be referred to a counsellor (depending on the drama school), which is fine but they are not being provided with the skills to manage their mental health long-term. By contrast, I want mental health promotion on the curriculum of drama schools.’
‘They put people to sleep; I wake them up’
So, how did such a varied and unusual career develop? What is Naomi’s background? ’My dad was a GP, my mum a nurse. The rest of my family are anaesthetists, including my husband. They put people to sleep; I wake them up and talk to them!’ Naomi completed her thesis on sleep difficulties working with the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research. She is passionate about the benefits of CBT-I and is setting up a primary insomnia service with consultant neurologists who specialise in sleep disorders where she works.
‘My grandmother was a trained singer and my father a concert-level pianist so perhaps that influenced my creativity. As a teenager I trained with the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and was always working on plays.’ Naomi’s family insisted she got a degree before going to drama school, ‘so I studied anthropology and archaeology at Durham University – developing my interest in people, the cultures and societies they come from’. At weekends she did an HNC in Drama since, as she says ‘I like to keep busy’. After this she went to drama school in London on a one-year accredited course, ‘which was very expensive so I worked alongside studying. Afterwards, I went for auditions but the rejection was difficult. I was temping – which is fine, but if you want to be acting it isn’t good for your self-esteem or motivation. I was also getting into debt, so I made a decision. I applied for an MA in Dramatherapy which allowed me to use my skills and further understand how people think. After the course I worked in the NHS with clients with learning disabilities and acute mental health problems. I worked alongside art and music therapists, clinical psychologists and psychology assistants who helped to co-facilitate and evaluate the dramatherapy groups. I realised that clinical psychologists had extensive research and leadership skills and valued the fact that they could draw on many different models. The experience motivated me to do a two-year, one-day-a-week Graduate Diploma in Psychology. It was everything I hoped for. I particularly found the social psychology and cognitive work fascinating. I was also doing acting and dramatherapy at the same time.’ I pointed out that Naomi has seemed to keep – to put it mildly – pretty busy. ‘I sometimes think I ought to practise what I preach and get a better work–life balance, but I enjoy being busy.’
Naomi then worked as a volunteer psychology assistant one day a week for six months in older adults and immediately applied for the doctorate. ‘I chose an elective in older adults because I’d really enjoyed my placement and was interested in the cognitive aspects of ageing. Three months after giving birth I started the clinical neuropsychology course via the CPD route.’ Naomi is also trained in acceptance and commitment therapy, which she uses routinely in her work with stroke patients.
To say the least, Naomi has come to clinical psychology by an unusual route, following a fascinating range of interests. What does she think of the route to chartership now? ‘My anxiety is that it’s becoming about money. I notice that they are now offering self-funded places which could reduce diversity. There’s a worrying parallel to junior doctors who are going abroad to get better-paid jobs.’
Do psychology and drama really go together? ‘Yes, more so than just in the way I’ve started to link them. For instance, film directors contact me via LinkedIn to ask for help in understanding characters’ psychology. There’s a role for psychologists as consultants in the area – maybe to actors and writers as well as directors.’ Why did you raise this issue now? ‘A number of papers in 2015 by the government and the Mental Health Foundation have raised the importance of mindfulness and mental health promotion. Plus, I’ve returned to performing and it’s prompted me to act… so to speak.’
‘Being a human being, not an expert’
I asked Naomi if there was anything else she wanted to discuss. ‘Well, I read an article in The Psychologist by Naoimh Fox about working as a psychologist with hearing loss. It greatly interested me since I wear two hearing aids. Being open from the outset about my disability is a good way to encourage stroke patients to, in turn, talk about their issues. It suggests you’re a human being not just a psychologist, and I believe that strengthens the therapeutic relationship. Disability and diversity are important issues in our profession – as they are in acting…’
It’s a tribute to Naomi’s ability to communicate that this rich information on a variety of topics came across in an interview conducted via Skype on her phone while she was in her car, parked outside the venue for her next appointment. To find out more about her work see www.naomihynd.com.
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