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Hollywood can be brutal. Here’s how to manage your mental health

Illustration shows a woman taking a selfie with her support network.
Screenwriter Michael Golamco stresses community as a way to support your mental health — “finding a group of people to work with and to make stuff with.”
( Juliette Toma / For The Times)

D’Lo remembers he instinctively knew how to command a stage as a performer, even before he had proper training. That early confidence gave him the courage to pursue a career in an industry where the odds seemed stacked against him.

His early mentors could see through his talent and charisma, though.

“They told me, ‘You have a problem being vulnerable, and you need to get over that, because this will kill you as a brown queer trans person, if you keep acting like everything is fine,’” he said.

Every actor’s dilemma, D’Lo said, is whether their career is progressing at the right pace. Do you keep going, or is it time to give up?

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He said the mid-2010s felt like a tipping point for queer and trans people, and he booked roles on “Looking,” “Transparent” and “Sense8.” But then, as he was making strides in trans advocacy — including filming an open letter to Hollywood asking for fair casting practices for transgender roles in 2017 — the acting work fizzled.

“It became, ‘Am I doing enough?,’ and that question ‘Am I doing enough?’... that was the real struggle,” he said.

Many who work in the entertainment industry will agree that it can be rough. It’s competitive, there are toxic and abusive elements, it favors people with connections, and every time you’re lucky enough to have one success, someone is asking you what you are doing next.

We asked performers how they maintain their mental health in Hollywood and queried therapists who work with them for advice that might be helpful for anyone working in the industry.

Creativity

Brian Torres, a queer Mexican Native American therapist, specializes in highly sensitive people; he said many artists fall into this category. They “have a brain that really deeply processes information and also a more finely tuned or highly reactive nervous system and sensory-processing sensitivity.”

As a result, highly sensitive people have a high degree of empathy which makes them good storytellers, but they also tend to get overwhelmed and burn out faster.

D’Lo’s partner, Anjali Alimchandani, a psychologist and a board member of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, said that much of her work focuses on helping people connect with and remove barriers to their creativity: “In order to be able to access creativity, we need to feel free and safe.”

That involves understanding how to identify and observe feelings — and to build the skills to manage emotions.

“If there’s a painful feeling coming up, it’s almost always that there’s an unmet need underneath the feeling,” Alimchandani said. “What are the feelings trying to communicate? It’s trying to give you data and information about where something isn’t working.”

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Rejection

Alimchandani points to D’Lo’s struggle of always wondering whether he’s doing enough: “That’s tied to rejection,” she said. “Am I doing enough? Am I being enough? Am I enough, period?”

It can also affect your relationships, D’Lo said, when friends have successes you don’t have.

Torres said it’s easy to tie up your own self worth in other people’s approval of you, to think that you’re not good enough unless someone thinks you’re good enough for the job.

Jeff Logan, the lead of the Allblk drama series “Double Cross,” said you have to love the whole process. He said his past — as a former football player who worked to lose more than 100 pounds after becoming depressed and homeless — helps him tackle adversity in the entertainment industry.

“It’s about knowing there will be rejection, accepting and welcoming it,” he said. “There has to be a yes there somewhere. I’m going to find it.”

Randall Park, an actor on the Disney+ series “WandaVision” and a cofounder of the production company Imminent Collision, said the reality of pursuing a career in the entertainment industry is that you won’t come out unscathed.

“I think just by doing it, you get destroyed a little bit,” he said. “In life too, right?”

But: “It makes sense that the funnest job in the world is really hard to get. ... If you want to experience that much fun for a living, you gotta go through some hoops.”

For many people who pursue entertainment as a career, it takes years to get yourself to where you are making money from your creative work. For making money in the meantime, there’s always waiting tables. But more and more people are turning to platforms like TikTok, Twitch and Patreon.

Instability

There isn’t a linear path to success in the industry, “so there’s a constant self-doubt of ‘Am I on the right path?’” said Alimchandani.

Torres sees that a lot of his clients’ happiness rests on getting that new project. “It’s this preoccupation with success, that you’re not going to be happy until you get that movie,” he said. “And you’ll be unhappy until then?”

Many in the industry also confront financial insecurity — irregular income, juggling a side job or multiple jobs.

“It’s holistic and not just about self worth,” Torres said. “If you’re trying to make money with your art, and you don’t make it, that brings up the insecurity of ‘How am I going to survive?’”

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Underrepresented communities

If you’re a person of color or identify as LGBTQ, you deal with all these issues, amplified, Alimchandani said. She added that this is likely also true for most women, who face disproportionate standards of beauty in Hollywood.

“Extra rejection, lack of opportunity, racism, transphobia, homophobia, being asked to do stereotypical things that kill your soul. ... And what does that do to a person to constantly undergo that?” Alimchandani asked. “The tokenism, but also constantly being asked to teach people.”

Art as therapy

In addition to performance work, D’Lo writes, produces and stars in autobiographical solo shows for theater. And he runs workshops with South Asian immigrants, helping them tell their coming-out stories.

“I think the process of you doing these shows is such a therapeutic process,” Alimchandani said to D’Lo. “Sometimes it’s not until you start to write your story, and you start to be able to rewrite your self story, that you realize this ... isn’t actually true anymore and maybe it never was. And you start to see things in new ways.”

She added that she sees aspects of group therapy in how D’Lo’s audiences react to him.

“As one person is sharing their story, other people start to connect, and it starts to illuminate aspects of their story,” she said. “It’s the part after the show when everyone is coming up to him to talk. There’s tears; people are emotional. It is so much like group therapy.”

“It is the vehicle of comedy that allows people to look at their own story through my story and not feel like it’s so overwhelming,” D’Lo said.

Community

Park and Michael Golamco, screenwriter of the 2019 film “Always Be My Maybe” and cofounder of Imminent Collision, were part of a group of friends that started the LCC Theatre Company at UCLA. (LCC stands for Lapu, the Coyote That Cares.) Ali Wong, who co-wrote “Always Be My Maybe” with them, is also an alumni of that theater group, as are many now-working Asian American creatives in Hollywood.

“When you’re coming out here as an actor, mental health is the biggest threat to your staying in the industry,” said Park.

Golamco said this is also true with other jobs in Hollywood.

“I think writing is about managing your anxieties ... because you spend so much time all alone trying to figure this out,” said Golamco. “Anxiety is a constant in the room, and a lot of writers I know deal with that anxiety, no matter who they are.”

“The best prescription to [managing your mental health] is community,” Park said.

Park said artists should start their own groups. He also was part of the Channel 101 community, where he directed and starred in many short comedy films. He also recommends getting involved in community-based organizations or small theaters.

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Balance

Your career is not the most important aspect of living a happy and fulfilled life, Park said.

“It is the type of career where a lot of people fool themselves into putting everything into it,” he said. “They believe that everything has to be sacrificed to be successful in this.”

Torres said he encounters this all the time with clients.

“It’s these indoctrinations,” he said. “‘If I’m not suffering, bleeding, if my mind’s not preoccupied with this 24/7, I’m going to lose out. Someone hungrier is going to take it.’ It’s really this abusive relationship with entertainment.”

He tries to get artists to pinpoint the parts of their work that drive them.

“So what if you wanting to act is not about being a screen actor at all,” he said. “What if acting is the box it comes in? So what does acting help you access?

“Do you like to tell stories? To express yourself? The adrenaline of the stage? Or being able to wake people up to something? If it’s actually about those four other things, maybe there are ways to hit all of that spiritually while you’re waiting for the acting thing. What other ways can you express yourself so this muscle doesn’t feel like it’s suffering?”

Torres used to be part of a heavy metal rock band, and he remembered pinning his hopes and dreams on a record deal. And once he realized the reality — that talent and hard work might not get you anywhere without luck, which is out of your control — that’s when he started to quit.

Knowing what he knows now, he wishes he had been more gracious and grateful for the opportunities he did have.

“Some of the best times I had was in the band with my bandmates,” he said. “I wish I’d given that more credence and more validity.”

For many people who pursue entertainment as a career, it takes years to get yourself to where you are making money from your creative work. For making money in the meantime, there’s always waiting tables. But more and more people are turning to platforms like TikTok, Twitch and Patreon.

Freedom to leave

Torres likes to try to get his therapy clients to consider a Plan B. This is often an unpopular suggestion.

“It’s not that I think you should quit,” he said. “But if you start this inquiry about what else is there, you may feel less stuck. ... I try to just slowly make room for what else could bring you happiness.”

After he gave up his music pursuits, he found that working in mental health was not too far off from his initial desire to connect with people as a musician.

“To be drawn to the arts and moved by this passion and empathy — and to end up here — it makes sense that my next field would be of service and about helping folks,” he said.

D’Lo has struggled a lot in the industry. But he’s still making art.

“I’ve always had to remind myself, ‘It’s not your job to be available for somebody else’s vision,’” he said. “It’s your job to manifest your own visions for what your career is going to look like.”

Read more of The Times’ guide to working in Hollywood.


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