Mental Health in the Documentary Sector

In May 2023, Malikkah Rollins (Director of Industry and Education, DOC NYC) and Sarah Spring (Executive Director, Documentary Organization of Canada) hosted a session during the Hot Docs festival dedicated to DocuMentality, their recent report about the well-being and mental health of industry professionals working in the documentary sector.  

Documentary filmmakers aren’t alone in experiencing burnout and mental health issues. But there are factors specific to the documentary film industry that make its members’ mental health of particular concern, including isolation, scarcity of resources, dealing with traumatic subject matter and flaws in some diversity initiatives.

With this in mind, DocuMentality, a group of filmmakers and mental health professionals from the U.S. and U.K., came together to study the mental health of documentary filmmakers. In February of 2022, a Canadian team led by Sarah Spring, Executive Director of the Documentary Organization of Canada (DOC), joined them.

“Tamara Dawit, who used to be at the CMF [Canada Media Fund] doing growth and inclusion work reached out to me and she said I think that you should know about this, I think this would be a really important thing for the DOC to be involved in. At that point I hadn't heard of it and I just jumped at the chance,” Spring says over Zoom from her Montreal home office.

“The CMF came on board to fund the whole thing, which was amazing,” Spring says, adding the CMF’s funding came in around the $55,000 mark. “There actually hadn't been any kind of report or public discussion about mental health, let alone in documentary film…so this felt really urgent.”

DocuMentality’s first report came from the Canadian team with results specific to the Canadian market. “DocuMentality: A Report on Mental Health in the Canadian Documentary Sector” was released at the beginning of May. You can read it on the DOC’s website,

048 07LR JM69212 By Joseph Michael Howarth Courtesy Hot Docs
Malikkah Rollins and Sarah Spring at Hot Docs (Photo by Joseph Michael Howarth Courtesy Hot Docs)


The Canadian portion of the study involved 36 documentary filmmakers sharing anecdotal experiences via Zoom conversation groups.

“We wanted to have a national reach, so we put out a call to the documentary film community inviting people to send in submissions of interest,” says Spring. Conducting the conversations virtually allowed researchers to include filmmakers from beyond the big cities.

The 36 participants — directors, editors, producers, and other filmmakers — were divided into seven focus groups based on shared identities: Black, Muslim and Racialized; Indigenous; 2SLGBTQIA; Creators Living with Disability; Women and Non-binary; Mixed Francophone; and Mixed Anglophone.

The breakdown of groups was modelled on what was already being done in the U.S. and U.K.

“Some experiences are common to all filmmakers — financial precarity, PTSD. But some are really specific to communities and they found that the subjects were more comfortable speaking about their experiences when they weren't having to explain what those experiences were,” explains Spring.

SarahSpring Headshot
Sarah Spring, Executive Director, Documentary Organization of Canada


From a larger list of pain points, Spring says seven were common to almost every group — scarcity of funding, trauma from working on difficult subject matter, difficult relationships (both with funders and other members of your team), the “post-partum crash” that comes at the end of a big project, isolation, navigating high-pressure industry events like film festivals, and the harms of diversity initiatives that, while often well-intentioned, can do harm.

Topping the list for Spring is funding, since a lack of funds has repercussions across the board.

“The scarcity of funding, navigating the complex funding structures, the idea that you have to have a first feature that you've really funded on your own with your own blood, sweat and tears in order to even be considered relevant as someone that's deserving of funding in this country,” she says, “which really points to another problem, which is that you have to have access to money in order to make a film, so there's a massive barrier in terms of socioeconomic exclusion.”

Once you find a way to make your doc there’s a good chance it will deal with traumatic subject matter. One participant said they felt like they were competing in the Trauma Olympics because funders often want to see painful and disturbing subject matter.

“They're filming stories, often over many years, that are quite traumatic,” says Spring. “And why are people attracted to certain types of stories? Usually because it holds some sort of significance for them, so people tend to be retraumatized. When they're filming these stories, they're also having to suppress and shut down a lot of these emotional reactions because they have a job to do.

“Not just filmmakers, but also editors,” continues Spring. “An editor is having to edit a film for sometimes a year, staring at really tough footage, trying to put together the most compelling scenes. And what are the most compelling scenes? Often the most painful scenes.”

Participants also spoke of challenges caused by some diversity initiatives. Spring gives the example of an organization that mandates a certain percentage of their crew come from an underrepresented community so it hired a young racialized editor.

“The editing schedule was the same as an editor who had been editing for 15 years,” she says, “and this was an emerging person who was given an opportunity on a production as part of a diversity initiative…. It's all like, oh, this is a great idea that's come up with in a boardroom. But you're hiring someone and you're not like, ‘We need to modify the editing schedule. We need to ensure that this person has some breaks to be able to process diving into this intense footage.’”

Isolation was another concern since many documentary filmmakers spend hours by themselves or working with tiny teams over a span of years. When shown a variety of photographs and asked which one represents the documentary film industry many participants chose an image of a person sitting alone on the edge of a cliff.

Connor Mcsheffrey Unsplash
By Connor Mcsheffrey / Unsplash


The filmmakers came up with a list of suggested solutions that ranges from training therapists to deal specifically with the documentary industry to appointing an ombudsman to provide advice and explain practices.

For Spring, a key suggestion is having support built into a project’s budget as a line item.

“It's hard to say what type of support everybody needs, but a film should have a budget for care-based approaches essentially,” she says. “On some productions it might be childcare. On some productions it might be on-set therapy. On some productions it might be a therapist that can check in with the filmmaker or the team or the participants over the course of a production.”

The filmmakers also felt a more structured approach to defining relationships would protect team members. For example, if a director and producer are going to create a union that may last years they should take time to think about, and put in writing, how they will work together — from the division of tasks to a code of conduct.

“How are you collectively going to come to decisions about the projects? The default is a certain amount of hierarchy and because the producer is taking the financial risk and the producer is legally responsible for the production there's certain controls that the producer has to have, but it doesn't mean that the production can't operate from a little bit more of a care-based approach,” says Spring.

Flexibility of funding — including access points for resources beyond the usual culprits — is another recommendation. “The CMF having a stream for funding Indigenous film that's good, but we also need the Indigenous Screen Office,” Spring says.

“A lot of our funding structures are really hard to navigate,” she adds. “We're really lucky we live in Canada. We have a lot of public funding. There's a ton of accountability and documenting and reporting that goes along with it and that can also be really daunting.”

Navigating funding structures can involve working with decision-makers, sometimes called “gatekeepers,” who don’t value the concept of a film because they’ve had a different lived experience. The report suggests vetting and educating the decision-makers and perhaps imposing term limits on commissioning editors to break away from existing patterns of decision-making.

“Someone is needing to not just explain that their film is a great story, but having to explain to someone who doesn't understand that experience, that it's relevant, that people care and that there's an audience for it,” explains Spring. “I think the idea that people making decisions at the highest levels really need to more accurately represent Canada is a no-brainer.”

As for improving diversity initiatives Spring acknowledges it’s a big question. The report suggests investing in production companies led by producers who have been systemically under-represented, and mentorship programs.

“There are thousands of storytellers out there and artists and creators who just haven't had the chance to work within the mainstream system. So it's not that everybody needs mentorship and support. Some people actually just need the money to make their films because they're completely capable and ready.

“It's not just one thing, it's not just another thing,” she continues, “but a lot of it is initiatives without enough consultation, initiatives led by institutions that are really quickly trying to pivot away from systemically excluding a lot of people for generations.”


Now that the report is out it will take time to implement next actions, but Spring says in the short-term the DOC will create more virtual spaces for filmmakers to come together, check in and touch base.

She is also pulling together a list of existing mental health and other supports for documentary filmmakers so that the information is easily accessible on the DOC website.

“I think that the report is a great starting point,” she says. “It's really the very beginning.”

Marni Weisz
Marni Weisz is a Toronto-based writer and editor with a passion for movies, TV, comedy, and travel. For more than 20 years she served as Editor in Chief of Cineplex Magazine, where she interviewed fancy folk like Jennifer Lawrence, Mark Hamill, Margot Robbie, Keanu Reeves, Kumail Nanjiani, Donald Sutherland, and Tom Cruise. Her favourite question is, “When are you happiest?”
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