In September 2018, I wrote an article called Circus Saved My Life–Until It Ruined It. This article was an incredible outlet to share my mental health journey and its connection to circus. It was both cathartic and hard to write, but when I published it, I got an overwhelming outpouring of support. One of the most moving yet scary things that happened after publishing the article was the tremendous amount of comments and private messages from circus artists (under the promise of anonymity) letting me know that they felt exactly the same as me, as in they either experienced sexual assault or abuse in the circus community, or that they were dealing with mental health issues that they felt were exacerbated by their circus community.
These messages helped me feel supported and like I was not alone, but they also helped me realize that these issues run rampant in the circus world and are often not spoken about. We need to address mental health topics that are unique to our community so that they don’t continue to stay hidden and eat away at the health of our circus artists and the strength of our industry. We need to increase research, to start and fund programs and organizations that advocate for and protect the circus artist so that our community is safer for all of us. We need to talk.
Why Care? Going Beyond Social Circus
The mental health of the circus performer informs the work they make. The mind tells the body what to do and the mental game is such an important part of performance and skill. So why then is mental health such a taboo topic in the circus community? Perhaps it is because the community is just a microcosm of our society and thus it takes on the characteristics of the larger society. Nevertheless, I found that there is not much access to research about the mental health of circus performers and the specific challenges that they face, let alone research about treatments specific to circus performers. More research and mental health training in schools and studios would lead to a healthier industry, better art, less lawsuits, and happier performers.
We know that social circus is extremely beneficial to many groups of marginalized or hurting people because of the research that has been accumulating around the topic. It is incredible that social circus is able to help so many people from different backgrounds, with different issues and traumas. But what about the professional performers or circus students whose circus experience isn’t centered primarily on emotional growth but often on perfection of skills and creativity? What impact do the demands of a circus career have on the mind? Does its potential to connect and empower us as an avenue of creativity outweigh the stress that can arise from competition, high physical demands and comparison? Or are these demands creating an atmosphere that is ripe for problems?
Learning From Similar Fields– The Performing Arts
Since we don’t have much research about the mental health of circus performers, we can look at performing arts research because of the similarities between the fields in creativity, employment terms, and participant mentality.The New Jersey Theatre Alliance says, “Data collected showed that people who work in arts-related jobs are up to four times more likely to commit suicide. Male artists are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, and with female artists, the risk quadruples.” That statistic is troubling and begs some questions. Are people with mental health issues more attracted to the arts as an outlet, or is a career in the arts somehow causing or exacerbating these issues within people?
A training space can only become a toxic circus environment if the coaches and people in charge let it become that. Coaches can talk openly about perfectionism and encourage healthier patterns just by starting the conversation.
Some studies attempt to answer this question. A study about the extent of harrassment in theatre done byThe Stage shows that of 1,050 actors, “43% said they had been bullied, with 31% encountering sexual harassment.” Bullying and harrassment are factors that can lead to PTSD and other mental health issues and are a sign of a toxic work place that could use an intervention. The New Jersey Theatre Alliance also explains that “stress from limited financial circumstances and that of the rejection of personal products, or in the case of performers at an audition, the rejection of their very selves, may contribute to the higher risk of suicide for creative professionals.”
Kate F. Hays Ph.D., who has an independent practice called The Performing Edge, which focuses on performance enhancement for athletes and performing artists, lists the major issues for performing artists that her research has uncovered as: “High standards and excellence, competition, the role of emotion, memorization, the role of the audience, consequences to performance, and performance stress.” Circus performers also experience these types of stressors that both Hays and the NJTA mention, and I personally see the similarities between the statistics and my community. Do you?
Sports Research on Mental Health–The Similarities
Careers in sports also share many similarities with careers in circus. For example, both are considered high risk occupations with a high level of physicality that requires years of specialization to master and do not assure financial stability. Many consider this combination of factors too risky for a professional pursuit. According to CNN, sports is one of the five occupations where suicide is at its highest for women. Overtraining, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, pressure, and fear of failure are some reasons cited by The Atlantic that contribute to depression and anxiety in highschool athletes. The Atlantic also explains that belittling or erupting coaches can be so anxiety-inducing that they can lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. I see this as a call to all circus coaches (and sports coaches) to remind yourself of the effect that everything you say, as well as your tone of voice, has on your students. A training space can only become a toxic circus environment if the coaches and people in charge let it become that. Coaches can talk openly about perfectionism and encourage healthier patterns just by starting the conversation.
Another connection between sports and circus is the possibility for injury. The Sports Science Institute outlines the possible emotional effects of an injury such as sadness, isolation, and lack of motivation, explaining that these are normal responses but when these effects become prolonged they can turn into more difficult issues such as depression, eating disorders, or suicidal ideation. These mental health concerns appear with injury for multiple reasons–like a career that is conflated with a sense of self or stress induced at the possibility of a career change. It is also worth mentioning the day-to-day stress that occurs just because of the possibility of an injury is ever-present.
These mental health concerns appear with injury for multiple reasons–like a career that is conflated with a sense of self or stress induced at the possibility of a career change.
There is much more research about sports and performing arts when it comes to mental health than there is about the intersection of circus and mental health. That research is a powerful resource for athletes as well as for circus artists because we can take note of the parts of it that makes sense for us. Some positive benefits that can transpire from sports and circus research include better health funding for education (including injury prevention, mental health and nutrition care), and better pedagogical models can be developed for educators.
However, it is crucial that circus itself gets the research that it deserves because there are many nuances that apply to circus that will not be considered in other research studies. Although It is important that circus in general receives more academic research in order to legitimize the art form, specifically, research on the mental health of circus artists is crucial because we can use that data to create initiatives for change in the circus sector.
While there is not much research about mental health and the circus artist, there is some, although many of the studies are about injury, predictors of injuries, or the experience of performance related injuries. Those are essential studies, but they do not even scratch the surface of the long list of psychological concerns that exist for performers. Dr. Fleur van Rens, a circus psychology expert at Murdoch University, is doing relevant research. Her website explains that “circus appeals to people who are at an increased risk of developing mental health problems” such as queer people who “seem numerous in the circus industry, and are at increased risk of mental health concerns such as depression and suicide ideation.”
I was able to interview Dr. van Rens, who told me, “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… In order to facilitate the mental health of circus artists, we need to be wary of ‘maladaptive perfectionism… 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.” She went on to explain that the extensive travel circus artists regularly take part in “could lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are risk factors for depression.” She added that lack of sleep, exercise addictions, and trauma from the impact of accidents or injuries are other concerns pertinent to the mental health of the circus artist.
Stress & Performance Psychology
I spoke to Judit Sz.Látó, a Hungarian private mental care professional who works with acrobats. She says that in her experience, stress is the main concern when it comes to the mental health of a circus performer and that older circus artists should be the ones to teach younger artists coping strategies. But there are other performative issues unique to artists as well. Tsvetelina Ivanova, a MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology student at Loughborough University who focuses on Performance Psychology for Circus and Performing Arts, points out eight “Performance Psychology traits and phenomena, inherent to the performing arts” such as competition, vulnerability, and the quest for perfection in her essay Performing Arts: Injury and Adversarial Growth.
How Can We Grow?
How can we as a community support the artists who deal with these stressors which can lead to or exacerbate mental health issues? Ivanova explains that circus artists can “increase [their] chances of experiencing Adversarial Growth following an injury by acknowledging and working with a potentially shifting identity, talking about emotions, and establishing a supportive social network.” I would posit that those strategies can also be helpful for circus artists who are not injured but who are working on coping with the daily stress of a circus career.
For circus schools teaching recreational students, I would say that it is important to improve the mental health literacy of teaching staff.
Dr. van Rens says “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…. 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.”
Another person who is working on educating circus artists on mental health risks and adapting psychological tools and language to be circus-oriented is Janelle Peters, the education director of MOTH Contemporary Circus Center in Denver, Colorado. Operating under the moniker@cirque_psych on Instagram, she uses social media as her communication tool for community education. Additionally, there are some organizations like ArtsMinds in the UK and Entertainment Assist in Australia, who work in the entertainment industry to raise awareness and support people in the arts community who are going through mental health challenges.
To remove the stigma and begin the healing, it will take work from the top down and the bottom up simultaneously, from community management, to schools and studios and to the individual advocate. But we must do it because we all deserve the care from our community that will create systemic change. Some institutions are working on their approach to this issue and we can use them as an example as we forge ahead.
Alvin Nilsen-Nygaard, a student from the Cirkus Cirkör highschool program says that “The program highly values your physical and mental health. They know this amount of physical training and expression will be a huge change in lifestyle for most, and that it can be tough for teenagers. Therefore they want to help you tackle this variety of new challenges that arise through circus as well as possible. Each class is assigned a mentor who goes through hygiene, personal boundaries, sleep, and more. There is also a nutritional expert who comes once a year to hold a lecture, and give personalized advice. All the technical circus classes are very thorough on how to avoid injuries. Overall there is an atmosphere of safety, openness and respect in the Cirkör space.”
Addam Merali-Younger, Equity’s Membership Support Assistant for Bullying, Harassment, and Mental Health, and Mike Day, a live performance organiser covering circus, street performance and variety told me about what the mental health sub-group in Equity’s circus network does. “We’re working with Circomedia and National Centre for Circus Arts, who recognise that performers need support with their mental wellbeing, and are looking at, for example, provision of mental health first aiders on site, and training more staff in being able to support students with mental health concerns or questions. When the sub-group has finished its work it aims to roll out the findings and share them with other circus schools.”
As you can see we are not alone and unsupported. We have resources, though they may be limited or hard to find. I see a need for change because as I walk through my community and read the messages responding to my article, I see the positivity and power that circus inspires but also so many cases of sexual assault, suicide, and other struggles that could have been prevented or treated with a more proactive and protective community. We must continue to do research, build programs, organizations, and a healthful, vocal community that doesn’t fall back on the notion that we should hide our problems or problematic people/systems. To further this conversation, I will soon be publishing an extensive interview that I did with Dr. van Rens which focuses on practical tips for circus schools, coaches, and artists in order to strengthen their organizations and institutions by addressing the mental health of the individuals they work with. Hey circus, There’s an elephant in the room, and we need to talk.