What we mean by vulnerable contributors
A vulnerable contributor can be anyone who takes part in a production – unscripted or scripted – to discuss or share their experience of challenging topics.
They may also have individual needs based on a disability or health condition at the time of filming or transmission.
These challenging or sensitive topics could include:
- Violence, abuse, crime, natural disasters, trauma, mental health, bereavement or explorations of politically sensitive topics
- Domestic and/or sexual violence, gaslighting, emotional abuse or coercion
- Racism, sexism, ableism and all forms of discrimination and harassment
- Challenging or traumatic lived experiences or proximity to others experiencing these
- Locations such as prisons, hospitals, care homes or morgues, or specific places directly related to a distressing event or experience
Vulnerable contributors may have lived experience of the challenge or trauma.
If they’re engaged to share stories that benefit a production’s authenticity, they deserve care and consideration to ensure their mental wellbeing and safety.
Supporting your crew
Another aspect to consider is that crew often feel under-trained and under-equipped to effectively support the wellbeing of vulnerable contributors.
They can become overwhelmed by the responsibility, and their own wellbeing and mental health can suffer as a result.
However, there are key actions and skills that will help ensure due care is shown to vulnerable contributors and supporting crew involved in your production.
What should you be aware of?
At the beginning of any production that includes working with contributors, the potential risk to them should be assessed and discussed thoroughly, and this should continue throughout production.
Protecting your crew from psychological harm and completing mental health risk assessments (MHRAs) are legal requirements.
Also, ensure you share your casting protocol, or similar policy, with crew members before they approach and work with contributors.
It’s important to remember that vulnerabilities can develop during the process of filming, even if a production isn’t working with traumatic themes.
Where necessary, seek expert advice and keep commissioners up to date with any such developments.
Vulnerabilities can include any issues that come to light during filming, which might feel important to the production but they could also put a vulnerable person, their family or community at risk.
Vulnerabilities can also develop when content is broadcast – for example, revealing aspects of a contributor’s personality can make them vulnerable to public scrutiny or gossip in the media or online.
Ensure support is provided for contributors where a lack of media training, privacy concerns or exposure to abuse from members of the public is possible.
Final judgement about including such material should only be made after a full assessment of risks, from development to broadcast, has been undertaken and support put in place.
BBC Editorial Guidelines advise that a psychological assessment may be required to make sure individuals are robust enough to cope with any likely consequences of their experience.
Duty of care and safeguarding
For an employer, there are two main factors or principles that form the backbone of working on a production with vulnerable contributors and supporting crew:
Duty of care
The duty of care, under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, requires businesses, employers and service providers to put reasonable measures in place to ensure that everyone associated with them is reasonably protected from physical and psychological harm.
Therefore, as an employer or manager, you must take reasonable steps to protect the mental health and wellbeing of supporting crew and vulnerable contributors.
Safeguarding in a mental health context means protecting people’s health, wellbeing and human rights, and enabling them to live free from harm, abuse and neglect.
It also ensures employees struggling with poor mental health are supported appropriately, and both the employer and employees are equipped to recognise the signs that someone is struggling.
Taking a safeguarding approach can help ensure you uphold the duty of care and take steps to protect vulnerable contributors and crew from emotional distress, and to further support those affected.
Best practice principles of safeguarding
While there’s no current safeguarding framework for film and TV, you could review health and care service requirements on six principles of safeguarding:
Empowerment: Actively collaborate with the individual involved
- Listen to their experiences openly and without judgement (see active listening skills below).
- Let them tell you what support and care they need and agree what support, tools and resources can be provided to enable them to make an informed decision about whether to be involved.
- Never coerce or encourage people to do anything they express discomfort with. Make sure people always have the opportunity to change their minds further down the line.
Prevention: Act before harm occurs
- If you have serious concerns about someone, address them transparently.
- Be clear with your language, such as asking: ‘Is this topic distressing you?’.
- Be clear that everything you discuss will be kept in confidence, unless you have concerns that an individual might be a risk to themselves or others.
Proportionality: Take a proportionate response suited to the level of need
- Low need: Provide a space that’s suitable for having compassionate conversations and allows trust to be built.
- Medium need: Further to the above, signpost to and/or provide expert support.
- High need: Further to the above, immediately stop any exposure to distressing topics and discuss support options.
Protection: Discern if someone is particularly vulnerable or at risk
- Think about the specific demands of a distressing topic, such as violence, racism or rape.
- Consider the lived experience of vulnerable contributors/supporting crew to discern anyone at risk.
- Check anyone at risk is consulted and protected from demands that may be distressing to them.
Partnership: Seek local and relevant experts to support anyone who needs it
- Consider who interviews and works with contributors — do they have similar lived experiences or at least a good understanding of the issues? For example, if the contributor is sharing experiences of racism, can they opt to talk with a Black and Global Majority team member?
- Ask individuals who are struggling about what specific support would benefit them.
- Provide expert support for contributors with lived experiences of a distressing topic. For example, if rape is a topic, share details of a charity such as The Survivors Trust.
- Provide resources for supporting crew who are struggling, which could include highlighting available resources outlined in their wellbeing pack and sharing contact details for mental health first aiders or relevant counselling and support services from The Film and TV Charity.
Accountability: Be responsible and provide consistent follow-up support
- Don’t tick boxes – make sure any agreed support is swiftly actioned.
- Check back in with people to make sure any support measures are working, and, if not, put together a new plan or discuss the possibility of a team member deciding to come off the project.
- Vulnerable contributors may require follow-on care after the shoot and after transmission/release.
Navigating sensitive conversations
If contributors or crew on a production do experience emotional distress while being exposed to sensitive content, upsetting topics or triggering locations, the first step is to have a discrete and compassionate conversation to identify what support they might need.
Use the following guidance on handling sensitive conversations to support these discussions:
Build a trusting environment
- Be clear about the time you can give someone to talk (such as, ‘we have 30 minutes’).
- Find a quiet and private space.
- Don’t dominate the conversation or give advice – listen to them.
- Validate their emotions and experiences.
- Don’t make assumptions.
- Point them towards the individualised support available to them internally and externally.
- Seek support internally and externally for yourself, if needed – either for your wellbeing or for support with the conversation, such as from HR.
- Signpost line managers to supporting resources, such as the resources to support staff mental health from Mind charity.
Use active listening
- Listen to understand, rather than to give advice.
- Embrace silence – don’t jump to fill in or guess at words.
- Maintain comfortable eye contact, nod, lean forward and smile.
- Don’t get distracted by phones, emails and interruptions.
Use open questions
- Open questions can’t be answered with a yes or no (e.g. ‘How are you feeling today?’)
- They help to expand understanding (e.g. ‘What could I do to support you?’)
- They often start with why, how, what, describe or what do you think about..?
- Ask one question at a time – try to avoid multiple questions.
Taking care of yourself
It can feel overwhelming protecting vulnerable contributors and supporting crew who are exposed to sensitive content or distressing topics.
As a manager, it’s important to remember that you’re not expected to be a mental health specialist.
Put healthy boundaries in place, and guide others to do the same, so that you and members of your crew remain within your scope as employers, managers, supervisors or supporters.
Supporting without healthy ethical boundaries – the signs
- You feel over-invested in helping someone.
- The person contacts you to talk outside of work.
- You feel the person is becoming dependent on you.
- You’re feeling overwhelmed, triggered or distressed.
Supporting with healthy boundaries – actions
- Be very clear from the start about the time and level of support you can offer.
- Avoid responding outside of working hours, unless it’s an emergency.
- Advocate for the benefits of professional expert support.
- Signpost to your production’s resources, such as your wellbeing pack, mental health first aiders, HR team and any employee assistance programme.
- Share external mental health and wellbeing resources, such as the Film and TV charity’s online Freelancer Wellbeing Hub.
- If you’re feeling overwhelmed, seek support for yourself.
As we regularly review Toolkit content, if you have any suggestions to improve this guide, or any part of the site, we would love to hear from you.