I recently published an article called Mental Health & Circus; The Elephant in the Room– Crucial Resources and a Call for Action in which I discussed the sadly limited research available about mental health and circus. In this follow up article with Dr. Fleur van Rens, one of the few academics doing research on the topic, it is our aim to provide some advice for circus students, coaches, and others in the field about dealing with mental health issues in the context of circus spaces and communities.
Dr. van Rens is a lecturer in sports psychology at Murdoch University in Australia. She holds a PhD in sport and exercise psychology. She teaches and creates evidence-based programs that facilitate the mental health of professional performers, such as circus artists and professional athletes. Her circus research focuses on artists’ mental health, well-being, and safety. Dr. van Rens is an amateur circus artist herself, and discusses potentially relevant mental health concerns within the circus industry in blog posts on her website Circus Psychology. I was able to speak with her about some of the mental health concerns specific to circus performers and about practical advice she has for circus schools, coaches, and performers.
Fiona Bradley: Do you think that circus artists are more prone to mental health issues or are in a similar risk group to artists or athletes?
Dr. Fleur van Rens: I think this depends on the specific circus discipline. There are quite a few similarities between some circus disciplines (for example: floor acrobatics and aerial acrobatics) and some sports (for example: gymnastics, diving). Because of these similarities, I think it is possible that the most prominent mental health issues in these circus disciplines are similar to those in these sports. For example, a drive towards thinness for performance outcome related goals, and use of skimpy costumes in both these circus disciplines and sports is likely to cause a high risk of eating disorders in these groups. Other circus disciplines, such as clowning and juggling, appear to share more similarities to other performance domains, such as acting and archery.
FB: Are there specific psychological concerns that you feel are more common when it comes to circus artists?
FV: Generally speaking, professional circus artists are likely to have high levels of perfectionism (as we’ve seen in professional athletes too). Perfectionism is a personality characteristic in which people have very high standards for themselves, want to achieve flawlessness, and are overly critical of their performance. High levels of perfectionism are a risk factor of developing a range of mental health problems, such as major depressive disorder. It is important to note here that these high levels of perfectionism cause high levels of motivation to work hard, which helps a circus artists to make it to a professional level. In order to facilitate the mental health of circus artists, we need to be wary of ‘maladaptive perfectionism’. In short, maladaptive perfectionism consists of setting high standards for oneself, combined with a high level of concern over making mistakes. Maladaptive perfectionists’ self-worth is related to their performance (i.e., perfect performance causes high self-worth, error in performance causes low levels of self-worth). Maladaptive perfectionism is more detrimental to mental health than adaptive perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionism consists of setting high standards for oneself, but not being worried about how others evaluate you.
Another thing we need to take into consideration is the environment. For example, circus artists are often required to travel a lot, and some may live in a different country than their home country for a quite a while. For some artists, this could lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are risk factors for depression. Because of this, it is very important that circus companies try to create a supportive environment. Recent research I conducted (see van Rens & Filho, in press) has shown that circus companies often succeed in providing a nourishing environment. But I also noticed that this does go wrong at times, this came at the cost of the artists mental health and safety.
Lack of sleep is another risk factor that may be prevalent in circus (and odd sleeping patterns increase the risk of accidents!) Exercise addictions may be another concern, which can cause overtraining and burn-out.
Finally, we need to consider the psychological impact of accidents and injuries on circus artists. Experiencing or seeing major accidents can cause psychological distress or trauma. Further, injuries which prevent the artist from performing for an extended period of time can cause feelings of isolation, a lack of self-worth, and (financial) stress. This in itself is detrimental to well being, but these are also risk factors for several mental health issues.
FB: Can age play into this? Are there special concerns for young or aging circus artists?
FV: For young artists, moving abroad to join a circus troupe by themselves may be very scary. My research has shown that young (female) artists may feel confident while training and performing in the circus, but struggle as soon as the show and training time is over. They explained that they found it very hard to make friends when other people in the cast were older than them, and that they struggled to create a life for themselves outside of circus.
For aging circus artists, particularly those in highly physical disciplines, retirement may be a threat to their wellbeing. Or at least, research shows that this is a major concern in elite sports. Whether this really is the case in circus, I’m not 100% sure. The reason why I’m saying that is that circus artists are encouraged to explore and show who they are in their circus shows. This clear sense of personal identity could protect aging circus artists from some of the stressors of retirement.
FB: I noticed that you are currently working on a research project that has to do with disordered eating and circus artists. I know that you probably haven’t finished and cannot give conclusive data but I would like to know what that project is about and if you have any ideas or tangents from what you have learned so far.
FV: The project on eating disorders is a project lead by Yasmine Mucher at Mount Royal University, in collaboration with Dr. Lori Dithurbide at Dalhousie University. It is a short study about the prevalence of eating disorders in circus artists. I can’t share the findings just yet, because the project is currently under review at a journal. All I can for now is that we should not underestimate the prevalence of eating disorders among circus artists!
I think the circus community should come together and lead a quest for a special issue at a reputable journal for papers concerning psychology in circus arts.
What I would like to add here is that I have experienced first-hand how difficult it is to find a peer-reviewed platform to publish psychological circus research. It is much more difficult than publishing sports research. I have heard the same from some of my colleagues. I think it is highly likely that scientific knowledge about the mental health of circus artists is gathering dust on shelves because researchers are not sure which journal would be interested in their work. I think the circus community should come together and lead a quest for a special issue at a reputable journal for papers concerning psychology in circus arts.
FB: Do you think that professional circus schools are healthy environments for young emerging artists?
FV: This is a very interesting topic that I would like to explore further. There has been some work on the mental health of circus artists in circus schools compared to the mental health of circus artists in the circus. This work by Donohue et al (2018) offers a comparison of experiences of anxiety, depression, social isolation, fatigue, and sleep disturbance between artists at a national circus school and Cirque du Soleil. A real answer to this question, I do not currently have.
FB: Are there any services or practices that you would recommend a professional circus school incorporate into their program in order to create a healthier environment and community for their students?
FV: For circus schools teaching recreational students, I would say that it is important to improve the mental health literacy of teaching staff. To give an example, most circus schools require teaching staff to be certified in (physical) first aid. Circus schools may not know this, but in most countries there is also such a thing as a certified mental health first aid course. These courses teach people how to recognise mental health issues, the risk-factors, and what to do when an urgent mental health problem occurs.
On a (semi-) professional level, I believe it is important to equip artists with psychological skills that help prevent risk-factors of common mental health problems, such as eating disorders. This means providing practical workshops to the artists, during which they can acquire and practice these (new) skills. This will empower the artist.
I would say that it is important to improve the mental health literacy of teaching staff.
I would recommend large circus companies to at least have connections with a registered psychologist whom they can work with to develop an optimal climate in terms of mental health. Major companies could consider hiring their own troupe psychologist (as is common in elite sports). Providing mental health first aid courses to circus directors, coaches, cast, and crew can also help facilitate an environment that is even more conducive to the mental health of all professionals involved.
Finally, in general, I would encourage all circus environments to maintain an autonomy supportive climate, which means that circus artists maintain freedom of choice, and collaborate with coaches, directors, and other staff, as opposed to being ‘forced’ to do certain skills or behave in a certain way. Providing an autonomy supportive climate is extremely beneficial to wellbeing and thriving, and is something the circus excels in. It is important to maintain this strength to the benefit of all students, cast, and crew involved.
FB: Could you create a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts for circus instructors?
- Don’t focus on students weight of physical appearance, focus on their physical health instead
- Don’t force students to do skills/behave in a way that they don’t want to
- Don’t create a “go hard or go home” culture. Overtraining, burn-out, and exercise addictions are very real, and the consequences can be disastrous
- Focus on the physical and mental health of artists
- Provide choices to students in terms of skills they could learn/practice
- Explain and encourage the importance of rest and recovery to your students in terms of physical and mental wellbeing
- Consider your students ‘whole people’ who have lives outside of circus that may affect their wellbeing
- Consider differences between groups of students. Children have different needs than adults, amateurs have different needs than (semi-)professionals, men have different needs than women. Try to cater for these differences.
Dr. van Rens has given us all some important and well-researched advice that can be utilized in many different circus situations. She has gifted these practical tips to circus schools, coaches, and artists so that they can help strengthen our organizations and institutions by addressing the mental health of the people who work and learn within them. If you work for a circus school, please bring these ideas to the attention of the program director (such as the certified mental health first aid course suggestion), and consider going over the do’s and don’ts list frequently with your staff. If you play another role in the circus community, just remember that mental health isn’t a topic to shy away from and that it has a serious impact on our entire field.
All photos courtesy of Dr. Fleur van Rens.