by David Harewood
As a young actor struggling with the pressures of identity and blackness, I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act – and came out stronger for it
Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and I was encouraged by a friend to tweet a word of support to help raise awareness of an issue that affects so many people in different ways.
I picked up my phone and tweeted about my experience, 20-odd years ago, when I suffered a breakdown and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. In truth I didn’t think what I’d written was a big deal. So I was astonished at the reaction: 30,000 people all over the world liked or shared the post.
My own breakdown started shortly after I left drama school. Despite a successful start, within a couple of years of becoming professional, I found myself deeply unhappy.
It is fitting that I am writing this in the same week that government figures revealed the huge effects of ethnicity on life chances in Britain, because my own breakdown had everything to do with identity. Outside drama school, in the world of acting, I was being forced to get to grips with the reality that I was no longer just another actor. I was a black actor.
Perhaps I was profoundly naive, but at no point during my time studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art did the colour of my skin cross my mind.
I was a comprehensive school kid from Birmingham; I’d never heard of Bertolt Brecht, I’d read Othello and cried at a production of King Lear when I was at school, so I knew Shakespeare was kinda special. But that was about my limit. Suddenly, at drama school, I was exposed to all these amazing plays by all these astonishing writers. I played King Lear in my second year.
But in the real world I was never going to play those roles. Outside Rada, those opportunities weren’t open to actors of colour, and leading roles were rare, particularly on television. I very quickly had to adjust my sails for shallower waters. It was immensely frustrating, since I knew I was capable of much more. But my blackness had trumped my talent.
Things came to a head when I played the part of Sloane in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane at Derby Playhouse. When the play was first produced in London in the 1960s it caused a scandal and I leapt at the chance of the central role. What I didn’t realise was that I was venturing into the treacherous waters of representation, and the question of how, as a black actor, one is supposed to represent blackness. Sloane is a scheming, murderous, sexual deviant who ends up in servitude to two highly dysfunctional characters, and maybe I should have seen how my blackness could be seen to add a racial element to an already inflammatory set-up.
The play was very funny. Press night was a success so I dared a peek at the reviews. I’d heard they were generally positive and they were. Only the journalist from the local black newspaper had given it the thumbs down, and he wasn’t holding back on naming names. “Mr Harewood should seriously examine his choices as an actor,” he wrote. “He shouldn’t represent the community in a such a vile manner.” He ended his piece by suggesting that if people did go to see the show, they should walk out if, like him, they were disgusted by what they saw. And so, for the remainder of the run, on some nights, as I delivered Sloane’s sordid soliloquy at the start of the second act, some of my brothers and sisters would get up and leave.
Here I was, struggling with my black identity in a white world, and rejected by people who looked just like me. It was a confusing time. I began to lose confidence on stage. I started drinking, before and after shows. Manically throwing myself into performances was the only way I could block out what was happening in my head.
But it was my next job that pushed me over the edge. I was cast as the “fool for interracial love” in a touring production of a very flawed play about black identity. It was a disaster, made even worse by the unwanted sexual advances of another member of the company. I couldn’t wait to get back to London, to see my friends and be happy again.
But it was already too late. I haven’t got enough space in this article to tell you what happened between then and the day I was sectioned at the Whittington psychiatric hospital in Archway, north London, but I will say this: I had the most extraordinary time. Much of it I don’t remember but I have vague memories of travelling around London, performing “street theatre”, bursting into song on the tube and chatting to complete strangers.
Help arrived when I had an audition in central London and turned up three hours late. The casting director, who later became a dear friend, recognised something was wrong and called my agent. Friends came and took me home. We all knew something was off but didn’t really know what to do because it looked on the surface as though I was having a great time. I visited a doctor but he fobbed me off with a bottle of pills after 20 minutes and said to my mates: “He seems to think he’s Lenny Henry! He should take these and get some sleep.” I threw the tablets in the bin on the way out.
The first time I realised I was in serious trouble was when I tried to get out of the hospital ward I was on but I couldn’t because the doors were locked. I’d been sectioned.
I had amazing support from friends and family, who visited me often and stressed to everyone at the hospital that although I appeared to be a scary big black guy prone to outbursts of song and verse, I was in fact an actor experiencing a nervous breakdown of some kind. My brother Paul offered me the best advice: “Dave … I know you’re flying a bit but if you wanna get out of here you’ve got to tone it down and start acting normal.”
I took his advice. Even though the Largactil (an anti-psychotic drug) was making my head spin, I resolved to start taking control and cutting out the outbursts. Eventually, with rest and the amazing care of my mother, I got myself out of there, and within six to eight months was back at work.
I’ve never had a repeat of what happened, and although many of the issues and pressures of identity and blackness are still with me, I’m much better at coping with them now.
I’m more experienced, in life and in the industry too, and reasonably secure in who I am and how I fit in. Personally, I believe that episode has given me enormous strength. I’ve never been ashamed to talk about it – it’s my go-to pub anecdote – so I’m not sure why it’s taken so long to say it publicly. But I’m glad if what I said has given someone comfort or strength. If people now see me as the weirdo in the corner, that’s no concern of mine.
If you’ve ever experienced or are experiencing some form of mental illness, I’d urge you to get some support and wish you the best of luck. It’s more common than you think. If you can find your way through the craziness, there’s treasure in it, I promise you. I know because I found some. As King Lear says: “Oh ho, are you there with me? No eyes in your head, nor no money in your purse? Your eyes are in a heavy case, your purse in a light; yet you see how this world goes.”
• David Harewood is an actor