- Many actors have struggled with mental health conditions and addiction, and a long series coming to an end seems to be a particularly common catalyst for them going into treatment.
- For example, Kit Harington checked himself into rehab after “Game of Thrones” ended.
- Saying goodbye to a character they’ve poured everything into for the better part of a decade isn’t the sole reason actors can struggle mentally, but it’s likely to be a factor.
- Characters can become part of an actor’s identity, and leaving them behind can feel like a loss they need to grieve.
- Acting is also an intense career path, with a lot of rejection, unpredictable work schedules, strained relationships, and a fear you’ve peaked when a long-standing role is over.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In May, soon after the epic series “Game of Thrones” ended, Kit Harington checked himself into rehab. Page Six reported that the actor, who played Jon Snow on the show for eight years, was seeking help for stress and alcohol use.
One source said it was the ending of the cult show that made him realize he “just needs peace and quiet.”
“He realized ‘this is it – this is the end,’ it was something they had all worked so hard on for so many years,” they said. “He had a moment of, ‘what next?'”
Harington’s story is a recognizable one. Many actors and others in the public eye have struggled with mental health conditions and addiction, possibly because a creative life can lead them down that path. But a long series coming to an end seems to be a particularly common catalyst.
Matthew Perry had several stints in rehab as he struggled with an alcohol problem during the final seasons of “Friends” and after the show finished. John Hamm also spent some time in a treatment center for alcoholism just before the final season of “Mad Men” aired.
Saying goodbye to a character they’ve poured everything into for the better part of a decade isn’t the sole reason actors can struggle mentally, but it’s likely to be a factor.
“For actors and performers especially, the roles they play become an increasing part of an identity,” Sarah Davies, a Harley Street psychologist who has worked with actors, told Insider. “So when this comes to an end, particularly when this has been a role for a long period of time, there can be a process of loss and of grieving that part.”
Sophie Turner, for example, was pictured sobbing while filming her last “Game of Thrones” scene.
“The past nearly 10 years… it’s been unbelievable,” she said in the behind-the-scenes video “Last Day on Set.”
Harington told Esquire in April he started hyperventilating when shooting ended because taking off Jon Snow’s costume felt like he was being “skinned.”
“Then they called, ‘Wrap!’ And I just fucking broke down,” he said. “It was this onslaught of relief and grief about not being able to do this again. It wasn’t so much about Jon. It was about not being in this world, not getting to smell those smells, fight those fights, be with these people – the whole package.”
It’s tough to leave characters behind
Rob Hamilton, an actor who is currently touring with a performance of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” can sympathize with what they might have been feeling that day. He told Insider he’s never been in a role as long as some of the “Game of Thrones” cast were, but he can imagine how tough it is to leave those characters behind.
“Leaving any job after 10 years, you’d be well within your right to be quite emotional,” he said. “Your sense of identity when you’re playing a role, and you’re making people feel real things, when you come out of that, you might feel like ‘is that the best thing I’m ever going to do? What’s the point in doing anything now? Should I just stop?'”
- Rob Hamilton
Psychologist Sally Baker told Insider that character acting is so intense, it can leave a massive hole when filming stops.
“Conjuring up those emotions often enough and with the right amount of authenticity can convince an actor’s mind that what they are feeling is real,” she said. “Any intense experience can often leave a person feeling flat and despondent when it’s over.”
She said that being on location far away from home and working with the same close-knit group of people for months or years at a time makes the filming experience even more emotionally all-consuming.
“Actors can be left with emotions similar to a bereavement when a film shoot comes to an end,” she said.
The cast and crew become your closest friends
It’s not always the character that makes it difficult for a role to end, however.
Actress Tatjana Anders wrote and starred in a short film about psychological abuse called “Your Reality,” and said it was so physically and emotionally draining she actually didn’t mind putting it behind her.
“The character at the end of the film wasn’t in a particularly good place, so it was a tough role, a real emotional rollercoaster,” she told Insider. “Some scenes, you have to do them several times and you’re like ‘Wow I feel really tired and exhausted, and I just want to sleep now.'”
The saddest part of it all, she said, was when she realized she wouldn’t be working with the cast and crew anymore.
“It’s like you’re becoming really good friends with people on set, and that’s even more applicable to people on TV shows,” she said.
“They’re on there such a long time, so these people become your family and your closest friends, and then you suddenly just go on living your life without them and doing other projects … Life completely changes.”
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Hamilton added that for high-profile actors, every choice they make afterwards will be scrutinized.
“If [Harington] chooses to do a role that isn’t perhaps quite as incredibly exciting as Jon Snow, then I’m sure loads of horrible people would bitch and moan,” he said. “I guess that’s part and a parcel of going into the bigger side of the industry.”
A long-standing role means a steady paycheck, and it’s stressful when that’s no longer a certainty
Saying goodbye to a character can also mean saying goodbye to a steady paycheck.
“It’s not sturdy work,” Karen Kwong, a career psychologist, told Insider of being an actor. “Even if you’re not prone to anxiety, you’re in a very precariously sensitive world where you don’t have regular salaries.”
The way actors look is massively impactful to whether or not they get a job, she added, which means while their appearance was perfect for one role, there’s no guarantee they will be the first choice for another.
“If you are currently on a job, it’s amazing, but then there’s a big lull of not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Anders said. “It’s like coming from a real high where you are like ‘this is amazing’ and ‘I’m having a great time, I’m on a shoot, life is brilliant,’ and then you’re dropped and you’re jobless.”
Adding auditions into the mix, which are essentially job interviews where you’re rejected 90% of the time, acting is a career full of intensity.
“The way it’s structured, you’re constantly going high to low, high to low,” Anders said. “It can’t be very good psychologically.”
Kwong has has noticed that many of her clients who suffer with stress and anxiety at work tend to have a different personality in the office to the person they are at home, like being the class clown, or putting on a serious front. But pretending to be someone else is all part of the normal daily grind as an actor.
“What [actors] do is dig deep from their own emotions, and that must be extraordinarily draining if they’re playing that role for a very long period of time,” Kwong said. “After a while, I imagine they start almost becoming them, even if they know how to separate themselves afterwards.”
Actors may re-live past trauma to bring emotions to the surface
Kwong and Baker both said bringing up intense memories to mimic the emotion a character is supposed to be feeling could be a little like experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Baker said coping with an adrenaline and cortisol overload when playing a lead role can cause symptoms of PTSD because “the mind can be tricked into believing fiction is fact.”
Kwong said when actors are asked to think about a time that scares them, or a moment in their lives when they wanted to cry, they’re basically re-living their hardships.
“A lot of actors and actresses will say they turned to acting because they felt it was a way for them to not be themselves, to find an escape from the hardships of their life for a while,” she said. “But, ironically, in actual fact, they’re sort of reiterating that trauma.”
Charlotte Armitage, a psychologist who sits on the Media Advisory Board for the British Psychological Society, told Insider it’s pretty unusual for the body to go through that kind of pain over and over again.
“You are going back into your box of life, and picking out all the painful, happy, or whatever emotion it is,” she said. “In order to do that you would have to put your body back in that moment, and I think if you’re playing something like that over a long period, it does take its toll.”
Anders said she found it hard at the beginning of her career to tap into these deep emotions, but in time she has strengthened the skill like a muscle so she doesn’t burn out. This was particularly important when playing the victim of insidious abuse.
“When I tell people I’ve done this short film about gaslighting and psychological abuse people ask me, ‘is this from your own experiences?’ and I say ‘thank god, no,'” she said. “But it’s something people assume, because you feel connected to that character. Where does make-believe start and where does it stop?”
She said the mind can be tricked into believing anything, and playing a character is like making yourself think that you are that person in that particular time, which is why it can be so difficult to move on.
“Some people can switch it off and on pretty easily and some people have to stay in the character for the duration of the shoot,” she said. “And I can imagine there’s a big low that comes after that.”
Hamilton said acting can put his body through a lot, both with adrenaline of having his emotions right under the surface and the physical training.
“You’re up at 6 a.m. then you do two hours of training, then you’ll be sat in a freezing cold room waiting to go on,” he said. “Also, a lot of actors beat themselves up if they don’t do it quite right. You can throw all this at the role and present yourself in the most vulnerable way, and still not be happy with the results.
“So sometimes you feel like you’ve got the worst of both worlds.”
Some roles are disturbing, and it can take therapy to recover from them
Armitage said she would advise every actor to seek therapy after a long role – especially if it has been intensely emotional or disturbing in some way.
“What they really need afterwards is a proper debriefing,” she said. “They need someone to help them decompress and come out of that role, and understand why they feel the way they do.”
After playing The Joker in “The Dark Night,” Health Ledger took drugs like oxycodone and diazepam to numb him, she said, when really what he needed was someone to help him unearth all the emotions that were brought up from playing a deeply traumatic role. He died from an accidental overdose in 2008 from the cocktail he was self-medicating with.
“If you’re in something a long time, it would be very difficult not to become part of that role, unless you’re very strict with your training and how you prepare and decompress after every day on set,” Armitage said. “And it would be very hard to not let parts of that character seep into you.”
- Warner Bros via YouTube
Armitage said it’s important that actors see themselves as a person first, and don’t push themselves to a brink they can’t recover from.
“If they just can’t cope with it psychologically, nothing is worth that,” she said. “What good is fame when you can’t cope with what you’ve unearthed?”
A strong support system helps drown out the noise and criticism
Anders said one of the reasons she has managed to stay grounded is because she knows she has a life to come back to, with friends, family, and a supportive partner. But she knows being an actor sometimes means being selfish and taking roles that will be demanding of your time, or based a long way away.
“I’m really lucky with my partner because he’s been so supporting of everything that I’m doing,” she said. “But I’ve had relationships before where they get jealous and they don’t trust you.”
Being on set and wondering if you’re going to be met with a scene when you get home, it’s “twice as draining and twice as exhausting,” she said.
Hamilton agreed that the value of a good support system shouldn’t be underestimated. He said it’s important actors have people around them who they can talk to, and block out the noise that inevitably comes with success.
“With the whole Kit Harington thing, there will be people going ‘oh poor rich boy he should be thankful for all the opportunities,'” he said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s not allowed to complain and have human emotions, and have a strain on his mental health.”
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A report from 2015 by Victoria University in Australia found that people working in the entertainment industry were twice as likely to attempt suicide and experienced anxiety symptoms that were 10 times higher than the general population. Symptoms of depression were five times higher than the general population.
Another study from 2016 from the University of Adelaide found that actors were highly vulnerable to anxiety and depression. But still the topic is largely ignored, according to Hamilton.
“It’s still taboo,” he said. “For every person who you find who’s happy to say when they’re feeling low or alone, ‘I’m doing the best I can do,’ there will be five saying ‘everything’s fine, don’t worry,’ because you don’t want to burden other people.”
Picking up old routines is vital for actors to get back to themselves after a long role
Armitage said the industry is waking up to some of the psychological impacts of acting, but it’s always going to be a tough career, and the effects of a role can persist long after a character is gone.
“It’s the aftercare that’s important after a role,” she said. “Offering them therapy, a safe space where they’re able to say it really evoked some difficult things in them, and ‘yes I’m taking medication now, I’m drinking, or I’m taking drugs,’ whatever it is.”
According to Davies, the actors who recover the best are the ones who are happy pick up their old familiar routines when they return home.
“Acknowledging that an emotional dip can happen when a production ends and that it’s normal and natural can be empowering,” she said. “It might just be enough for an actor to help give themselves permission to work through their emotions and come out stronger and more resilient on the other side.”
In a way, Harington’s experience of being unceremoniously “skinned” of Jon Snow may have been exactly the right thing for him, however abrupt, because it forced him to acknowledge it was the end.
“I remember going, ‘Wait, wait, wait!’ And they wouldn’t. They just ripped,” he told Esquire.
“There was something about the costume being taken off me that was like, ‘Oh, I don’t get to be him anymore.'”
According to Page Six, witnesses recently saw Harington in Madison, a small town in Connecticut, where he seemed to be having a well-earned rest.
“Kit looks really good and appears to be very focused on his health and wellness,” one resident said. “I think it’s wonderful that he is taking time to take care of himself – more people should.”
Kit Harington and Sophie Turner did not respond to requests for comment.