I’m delighted to introduce another guest blog this month, and a perfect one for the New Year. As we start thinking about goals and intentions for the year, it can be a useful time to reflect on what mental health actually means to us, and the changes we could make to enhance it. Michelle Dwarika, a PhD candidate at the University of Birmingham, takes us through some key concepts and strategies.
Mental health has become quite a buzzword in recent years. Especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, we have started to grasp not only that everybody has mental health but also how important mental health is for functioning well in our everyday lives. However, despite dancers’ mental health slowly gaining its deserved momentum in the dance world, recent headlines suggest that there is still a lot of work to do. In a recent scoping review, my co-author Heidi Haraldsen and I have tried to gain a better understanding of mental health in dance and what factors might contribute to dancers’ mental ill- and well-being.
But let’s start with a rather big question: what is mental health and what do we know about it in dance?
What is mental health?
Historically, physical health conditions were seen as more important and more treatable than mental disorders. As a consequence, mental health has generally been viewed as the absence of mental illness (Bertolote, 2008). With the establishment of the mental hygiene movement in 1908 and the creation of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1948, mental health increasingly incorporated mental well-being and positive mental health in its definition (WHO, 2023; Soshani and Steinmetz, 2014). Eventually, this resulted in the WHO definition of mental health as “… a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community…mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It exists on a complex continuum, which is experienced differently from one person to the next, with varying degrees of difficulty and distress and potentially very different social and clinical outcomes” (WHO, 2023).
In other words, mental health is very complex and is experienced differently from individual to individual. Since mental health is described as a continuum, both those with and without a diagnosed mental disorder (such as anxiety and depression) can experience mental well-being (or flourishing) and mental ill-being (also known as languishing) in certain periods of their lives (Keyes, 2002; Van Slingerland, 2018). Maybe because mental health is complex, there is no consensus in dance research as to which of the varying mental health models best describe dancers’ experiences with mental health and illness (Lundqvist and Andersson, 2021). Nevertheless, we do have an idea what might cause mental ill- and well-being in dancers and what we can do to both thrive and alleviate risk factors leading to mental ill-being and illnesses.
What can lead to dancers experiencing mental ill-being and mental illness?
At one time or another, we all might encounter demands, also called stressors, that really challenge us. According to our scoping review, dancers can be confronted with multiple, serious stressors at the same time (Dwarika and Haraldsen, 2023). These can be situational, interpersonal, or cultural. Situational stressors describe career and employment uncertainty, limited economic means, and injuries that dancers are often confronted with and need to manage. Dancers dealing with interpersonal stressors experience asymmetric power exerted by gatekeepers and authority figures (like teachers, choreographers, artistic directors) and pressure to conform to expected behaviour and set body ideals. Peers can equally be perceived as a source of interpersonal stress, especially if their opinions negatively influence what dancers eat or how they behave.
Finally, there are also cultural stressors that dancers encounter on a regular basis. These stressors are often an established part of different dance cultures and entail an expectation to follow tacit or explicit rules (such as how to look like and behave), but also the maintenance of traditional gender roles. For example, male adolescent dancers are seven times more likely to be teased, bullied or harassed compared to the general public and report having to comply to highly stigmatized and gender codified rules (Risner, 2014). Maybe unsurprisingly, these situational, interpersonal, and cultural stressors can lead to serious mental illnesses such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety but also to negative impacts on dancers’ mental health, such as fatigue, burnout and low self-esteem.
Yet, there is a caveat. These stressors alone will not necessarily make or break an individual. What personal qualities we possess, what kind of environment we are embedded in, and how we respond to stressors appear to be equally important in determining how severely stressors impact us (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). Dancers that exhibit perfectionistic tendencies or strivings and show signs of obsessiveness (like compulsive striving or not having interests outside of dance) and ego-orientation (focusing on outperforming others and demonstrating superior talent and ability) appear more likely to languish and develop a mental illness. Additionally, if these dancers are embedded in an unrelenting environment in which authority figures pay conditional regard to dancers such as favouritism, enhance peer comparison and competition, and enforce tacit expectations to conform to ideals, the risk of experiencing mental ill-being or developing a mental illness is even higher. These factors, in turn, increase the likelihood that dancers perceive stressors as a threat to their goals, ideals and existence in general. As a result, dancers might deal with these demands in unconstructive ways, such as not talking about their struggles, feeling shame, isolating themselves, imposing restrictive eating habits or feeling anxious and depressed.
What can you do if you think somebody is struggling with their mental health?
As we all deal differently with demanding situations, it can be difficult to clearly identify signs of mental ill-being or illness. Many dancers might not share their struggles and it could appear that they function “well” in the studio, in rehearsals and during performances. Still, showing that you care about others’ well-being can often make the biggest difference and even – in more severe cases – save lives. As Brad Henry famously said, “the worst thing we can do, is to do nothing”. Therefore, here are some ideas for how you can help somebody that is struggling:
Take your time to ask how somebody is feeling or doing!
We often rush around, asking “alright?” or “you doing ok?” without actually waiting for the other person’s reply. If we stop, take the time and show that we are interested in how the person is feeling, there is a bigger chance that this individual will open up to you
Take your time to listen and hear what the person is saying. Pause and make space for the individual rather than rushing to fill any silences or gaps in the conversation. Show empathy and warmth for the person’s situation and avoid trying to “diagnose them” or trivialise their worries.
Offer constructive and realistic help
At the end of the conversation, offer some way forward. You can offer to call or e-mail the person, catch up the next day or, depending on the situation, even offer to accompany them to an appointment with a mental health professional. Make sure you show up for these catch ups and that the person feels heard and seen.
Don’t give up
If the person seems to clam up, don’t give up. Keep on asking regularly how they are doing. If you feel comfortable, try to share your own struggles (both present and past). Often, the individual will feel less alone and might feel more comfortable to open up themselves
Read this blog if the person is in crisis
If the person is in crisis, it’s important you know what to do. Have a look at this blog which offers advice on supporting someone in crisis
What can lead to dancers experiencing mental health and thriving?
Fortunately, we’ve also got some idea as to what helps dancers experience mental well-being (flourishing). Research indicates that personal qualities, such as positive personality, relatedness, harmonious passion and optimism, might contribute to protect dancers from the negative impacts that situational, interpersonal, or cultural stressors might have on their mental health. Positive personality describes attributes like confidence, psychological flexibility (an individual’s ability to cope with, accept, and adjust to difficult situations; Tindle and Moustafa, 2021) and striving for autonomy, self-actualization, self-management, self-efficacy and self-development. Relatedness entails that dancers are able to establish and maintain positive, social relationships with friends, family, peers, teachers and organizations. Dancers that exhibit harmonious passion participate in dance out of their own volition, do not form their identity based on their level or quality of performance in dance, and nurture other interests and hobbies beyond the dance realm. Finally, optimistic dancers are those that have a positive outlook on their lives and view set-backs as a learning opportunity that will result in a facilitative outcome. While probably only a few people possess all of these qualities, research indicates that many of these attributes can be trained and nurtured, and that even possessing just one of them can contribute to improving and maintaining dancers’ mental well-being (Dwarika and Haraldsen, 2023).
However, it’s not just personality factors that contribute to positive mental health. Facilitative environments are often teacher created, task-oriented climates that nurture dancers’ autonomy and self-development and are perceived as psychologically safe. Furthermore, research in sport psychology indicates that facilitative environments are those that challenge the students but also offer the amount of support that is needed for the student to raise to the given challenges (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). That means that teachers in these environments acknowledge and draw on their students’ individuality, include them in choices made in class, enhance self-development, and do not punish mistakes but rather promote them as a learning opportunity. The scoping review indicates that dancers embedded in facilitative environments appeared more robust, healthier and harmonious in their development and received more valuable tools to strengthen their learning process. Moreover, dancers that possess some of the protective personal qualities presented above and are embedded in a facilitative environment, appeared to evaluate certain stressors as a challenge rather than a threat. Therefore, it seems that both a dancer’s personality but also their environment can be viewed as essential parts of a compass that guides dancers to assess set-backs and challenges as something that can contribute to their growth and development, rather than threaten their goals and identity.
What can you do to strengthen these protective factors and your mental health?
While dancers’ positive mental health still needs more research, there are things we can do to nurture those protective attributes that might buffer the impact of different stressors.
Get to know your strengths and use them to enhance your positive personality
Dancers are often told what they need to get better at. But what if you could use your strengths to improve your mental well-being and your overall performance? The following site offers a character strengths test that is free (there is a need to register though): https://www.viacharacter.org/survey/account/register. Once you have taken it, focus on your top three strengths. Remember: this is NOT about focusing on the strengths that are listed on the bottom of your results list! This is about utilizing the things you are very good at to make a difference to your mental health.
You can start by choosing just one strength that you focus on for a week, trying to use that strength in new or different ways. For example, if one of your strengths is creativity, you can explore new ways to get to school or work, or you can try to learn a movement in another way than you are used to. If you are good at building relationships, see whether you can strengthen a bond with a peer or pair with them to learn a choreography in class. While there are many more strengths that deserve mentioning here, the idea is that you use and explore your strengths and see what they have in store for you. The sky is the limit!
Try to journal or keep track of how these strengths have helped you! Becoming aware of good things that have happened or little successes you might have achieved will help you to draw on your strengths more and feel more optimistic and confident.
Dedicate time to a hobby or activity that brings you joy
Finding an activity that releases pressures you might experience is worth its weight in gold! This can be a kickboxing or cooking class, volunteering at an animal shelter or joining a book club. The possibilities are endless. The most important thing is that you find something other than dance that can nurture your well-being and that can offer you different perspectives, relationships and experiences outside the dance studio.
Spend time with loved ones
Spending time with a friend or family member can do wonders. Call someone you love or visit them to have some coffee. Often, people that know us well can offer us advice or just a different perspective to our worries.
Try to do something nice for others
Research within positive psychology shows that doing something nice for others can lift our mood instantly! This can be a small gesture, like holding the door open for someone, or writing a note with an uplifting message to a peer that needs it that day. You can also listen attentively to an individual that needs someone to talk to or offer to “lend” them some of your strengths or courage whenever you have some to give.
Write down three good things that happened each day
Dancers often need to write down feedback. But what about writing down what went well that day? Writing down three good things that happened every day, and why they made us feel good, often only takes a few minutes and can increase our awareness of the good things that are happening to us.
There are many things we can do to raise awareness of mental illness and to improve our mental health. To do that, we need to train our mind as much as we train our body. Establishing good habits that can improve your mental health and buffer stressors will take time but will always be worth it in the long run. More importantly, we can never do it alone. An African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”. While others (and yourself) can make a difference to your mental health, so can YOU positively influence the mental health of others. Dare to connect, have conversations, be a good listener and follow other interests beyond the dance realm. This will, in the end, not only make you a better dancer but also a more well-rounded human being. And last but not least: reach out to mental health professionals whenever you need it. Asking for help is always a sign of strength, and a likely beginning of positive change. Alternatively, be the person that can help others to reach out or offer them some of your courage that they can “borrow” whenever they need it. These actions can make all the difference in the world.
Bertolote, J., 2008. The roots of the concept of mental health. World Psychiatry, 7(2), p.113.
Dwarika, M.S. and Haraldsen, H.M., 2023. Mental health in dance: A scoping review. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, p.1090645.
Fletcher, D. and Sarkar, M., 2016. Mental fortitude training: An evidence-based approach to developing psychological resilience for sustained success. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 7(3), pp.135-157.
Lundqvist, C., & Andersson, G. (2021). Let's talk about mental health and mental disorders In elite sports: a narrative review of theoretical perspectives. Frontiers in psychology, 12, 700829.
Keyes, C. L. (2002). The mental health continuum: From languishing to flourishing in life.Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 43, 207–222.
Risner, D., 2014. Bullying victimisation and social support of adolescent male dance students: an analysis of findings. Research in Dance Education, 15(2), pp.179-201.
Shoshani, A. and Steinmetz, S., 2014. Positive psychology at school: A school-based intervention to promote adolescents’ mental health and well-being. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15, pp.1289-1311.
Tindle, R. and Moustafa, A.A., 2021. Psychological distress, social support, and psychological flexibility during COVID-19. In Mental health effects of COVID-19 (pp. 89-101). Academic Press.
Van Slingerland, K.J., Durand-Bush, N. and Rathwell, S., 2018. Levels and prevalence of mental health functioning in Canadian university student-athletes. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 48(2), pp.149-168.
World Health Organization (2023). «Mental health: Strengthening our response». https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response,