Supporting the students of Queensland Conservatorium


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When we hurt ourselves on stage, in rehearsal, or in the workplace, there is someone qualified with first aid training to offer assistance. When we feel hurt in the very same circumstances, sometimes it can seem as if there is no one there.

WORDS BY MADELEINE DORE | Published in Spotlight: The Arts Wellbeing Collective Magazine, Edition 1

When we hurt ourselves on stage, in rehearsal, or in the workplace, there is someone qualified with first aid training to offer assistance. When we feel hurt in the very same circumstances, sometimes it can seem as if there is no one there.

Paul Sabey has a bold vision for the future and how we support mental health and wellbeing in the arts.

‘In any dressing room backstage, I want to see somebody with Mental Health First Aid training who can be there to ask if someone is okay. It’s just as important as first aid – somebody who needs that mental health support should get that help in the same way’, he said.

He is well on his way to making this vision a reality. As an Associate Professor at Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, Paul says it is part of his job to care, not just teach.

Paul has spent the last year implementing workshops and training for staff and students addressing common challenges such as self-doubt, rejection, and self-care to help build resilience and a better understanding of the signs of mental ill-health.

‘The mental health of the students has always been something that is important to me because what we do is very demanding and comes with a lot of self-doubt. Doubts about your ability, about your appearance, and about whether you will ever get a job can plague a student’s mind, and then there is the constant rejection that can take its toll,’ says Sabey.

‘We often see people leave the business because that rejection is continuous, they don’t get the work, or they actually can’t handle that rejection,’ he explains.

‘So mental wellbeing is an important subject area – it’s not just about teaching students to sing, dance and act, we have to teach resilience and self-care, but also to care for others around them as well.’

‘That’s not making light of any other area of work – mental health issues can hit anyone at any time in any location – but performing artists can be particularly vulnerable,’ adds Sabey.

‘We put ourselves on stage, expose ourselves to be judged by a panel, an audience and critics, and to be judged in a way that in some instances is rather harsh,’ he said.

Wellbeing is more important than ever

It has become increasingly pertinent to ensure students, arts educators and workers receive this type of support, says Sabey.

In his 31 years of teaching musical theatre, he has built a wealth of knowledge and experience in guiding and framing young performers for sustainable careers in the industry. In recent years, he has seen a big shift in the types of difficulties emerging musicians and performers face.

‘If I look to what it was like for students studying twenty years ago, it was very different to what it is now, and I think social media has had a big impact on that. There is this constant pressure to be living the life that everyone wants, but actually, who really lives that life?’

The internal and external pressure to succeed – and signal your success – can lead to things like burnout for students as well as those already working in the industry. The impacts can be difficult to spot, but this is why more awareness and attention to mental health is crucial.

‘We all have bad days, we aren’t always switched on and jolly and that is fine, but if someone’s behaviour doesn’t revert, that is one of the signs to look out for. Are there big changes to someone’s appearance or behaviour? Are they skipping meals, not taking care of themselves, or pulling away socially? Of course people are allowed to change, but it is a way of noticing and asking, ‘Are you okay?”

A series of workshops and training have been specifically designed to help students spot these signs in themselves and others at the Queensland Conservatorium.

The aim of this mental health and wellbeing focus is to make something that would be long-lasting, ‘not just throughout the course, but throughout the students’ careers and future, wherever that may be,’ says Sabey.

Students attend various workshops led by a counsellor over the span of the degree. For first year students, the workshops provide strategies for coping in a new environment – from moving away from old friends and making new ones, to how to adjust from being a big fish in a small pond, to suddenly being surrounded by equal talent.

As second year has a focus on auditioning, the workshops prepare students for dealing with rejection.

Topics such as substance use will also be addressed in various workshops. The Conservatorium will also run similar workshops with a dietician and a physio to address mental health holistically, as well as introduce a buddy system between first and second year students.
Beginning in 2019, all third year students will complete a two-day Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course.

After all, ‘it’s about providing skills for life,’ concludes Sabey.

Paul’s tips for prioritising mental health in arts training institutions

Train staff in mental health first aid

‘All staff have completed the Mental Health First Aid training as we regularly have students come to us with issues and concerns. We were sort of self-helping them, but we needed to formulate and find the correct way to handle such issues.’

Start now

‘The thing is that someone may think they don’t need the support now, but you never know where you or someone you know will be in a couple of months or in a few years time. Something could come up and you will have the skills to fall back on to handle it.’

Focus on the long-term benefit

‘What we have done here at the Queensland Conservatorium is actually very easy to do. It costs a little bit of money, but is that really important compared to the advantage? Students are talking more about mental health, helping each other, and also applying their knowledge to life outside the program. I think it is a small amount to pay for the life-long skills students receive.’

Encourage mistakes and learning

‘In the arts we tend to focus a lot on minute details and they can weigh us down. Because we want to be perfect or we want to be the best, sometimes we forget to enjoy it and allow ourselves to make a mistake. Sometimes you have to say, let’s just have a laugh, let’s just do it, let’s just see what happens.’

Cultivate genuine caring

‘I care about people and I care about people’s mental health and I want to see people do well – and we can only do it when we are on form. As educators or leaders, we are only as good as the people we turn out – if I turn out people who are not secure in themselves or confident in their technique, then I haven’t done my job.’


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