Circus News

Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing in the Circus Arts

Working in circus can be thrilling, energising and full of moments of joy and excitement. It can also be challenging, competitive and even demoralising. Working in the gig economy is difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone with the impact of COVID-19.

Even before the infamous events of 2020, the entertainment industry was experiencing its own collective crisis. In 2015, Entertainment Assist and Victoria University published research drawn from workers’ experiences from across the sector. It uncovered startling statistics.

Of the entertainment industry workers surveyed,

  •      15.2% experienced symptoms of moderate to severe depression, and
  •      44% experienced symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety.*

*van den Eynde, Fisher & Sonn,Working in the Australian Entertainment Industry: Final Report, 2016

The causes of poor mental health and wellbeing in the circus and broader entertainment industry are complex and complicated. We will only address them by working together, so let’s take a look at meaningful, practical steps that you can take in your own school or studio to better support mental health and wellbeing.

First of all, what comes to mind when you think of ‘mental health’?

Those words are regularly misunderstood and are often used synonymously with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

However, according to the World Health Organization, mental health is “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises their own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community”.

There is often a perception that if we have energy leftover, we haven’t ‘given it our all’.

‘Mental health’ then, refers to what’sgoing well, and with an expectation of normal stress. Mental health is not merely the absence of a mental health condition, but about being well in the way we think, feel and develop relationships. Similar to our physical health, our mental health is not fixed and it’s normal for it to fluctuate throughout the course of a life, the year, or even the day!

Something becomes a mental health problem when the feelings are of such long duration and high intensity that they start to impact on your ability to function in everyday life. If you ever find yourself in crisis, remember help is always available and recovery is possible. Read more at Heads Up

A group of performers stand on an outdoor stage, glad in blue and gold costumes
Fun Run. Photo credit: Bryony Jackson

What does it mean for a ‘workplace’ like a circus school or studio to be mentally healthy? Guarding Minds at Work in Canada shares this definition:

 “…a place where people can work smart, contribute their best effort, be recognised for their work, and go home with energy leftover.”

You’ll probably feel like most of this definition is highly applicable. We typically work smart and are attuned to using our resources, skills and knowledge wisely. We contribute our best effort – in fact, our dedication to our work, and our passion for using physicality to tell stories and make meaning is unmatched. We generally recognise good work when we see it, either through formal mechanisms or even just sharing our thanks.

The last phrase, though, “…go home with energy leftover” is often where we struggle! There is often a perception that if we have energy leftover, we haven’t ‘given it our all’. We haven’t pushed ourselves to the very limits, and ‘thrown ourselves over’ to the art. While this may be a reasonable thing to do on occasion – perhaps when learning a new skill, or on opening night – it’s not sustainable over time, and won’t serve your art. It certainly won’t help to create a mentally healthy workplace, company or school.

Sometimes we even judge the success of a gig, training session or tech-based on how exhausted we are at the end of it! If everyone’s wrecked, that must mean we’re doing a good job and working hard! However, who does their best work when they’re tired, stressed, frustrated, and on the verge of burnout? Conversely, who does their best work when they’re awake, energised, excited, and enthused?

Let’s look at some practical steps we can take to create thriving spaces:

Know What Thriving Looks Like

Sometimes we might feel like supportive environments happen by ‘magic’ – that there’s an X factor that can’t be replicated. You get a good group and it’s wonderful, or it’s just not there and it’s fractious, unpleasant and grueling. But is it always magic and luck when things feel great?

Who does their best work when they’re tired, stressed, frustrated, and on the verge of burnout?

Think about a time when you were at your best — when you were able to do your best work. What was in place? What enabled you to feel energised? Now consider an example of when a company or group of people was at its best. What were those hallmarks? What enabled the company to be thriving at that time compared to another? How and why were those factors put in place?

Thinking about what works helps us begin to see a ‘vision’ of what makes a great workplace. Each factor we identify has the possibility of becoming a repeatable action. Each and every positive action we take can help create a more positive culture. What does a positive culture look and feel like?

  •      Imagine the season has finished (or the year, or tour, etc.), and you bump into someone who asks you about it. How would you love to be able to describe it to them?
  •      What would need to be in place for this to come true? What might get in the way?
Make Well-being a Measure of Success
A crowd gathers around large white dominos slowly falling down
Dominoes. Photo credit: Carmen Zammit

A great way to ensure the ‘busy badge’ or ‘stress wars’ don’t become the norm is to consider making positive mental health and wellbeing (or something similar) a measure of success. We’ll often mark success by measures of box office return, critical acclaim, full houses, audience feedback – what if we added in ‘wellbeing’ as one of those measures?

Use Your Skills in Risk

Those of us working in the performing arts – and especially in circus – are well-versed at identifying and preventing risks to physical health. Think about those moments where you automatically tape down a lead, test and tag equipment, even put a crash mat down! Use those same skills to identify and prevent risks to mental health. As with physical OHS (occupational health and safety), work to eliminate the cause of the risk, not simply treat the symptoms.

Do More of the Good, More

Making positive changes to better support mental health and wellbeing in our teams, schools and workplaces can feel daunting. But it doesn’t have to be if we start where we are and build on our collective strengths. Positive mental health messaging can be included across everything that’s in place already – it doesn’t need to take up lots of time, resources or money. Consider adding information to toolbox talks, induction packs, call sheets, check-ins, welcomes, etc. These can also prove to be great ways for company members to share feedback and ideas for creating and maintaining a mentally healthy workplace.

See Help, Seek Help

Offer and promote access to professional supports and other services that help people with their mental health in an effective, compassionate and meaningful way. This includes providing access to professional support, and clear policies and procedures on what to do if someone becomes unwell. Also, seek help yourself! Role modeling help-seeking and speaking openly about your experience helps to destigmatise mental health and mental illness.

Practice Over Perfection

Culture is what we do, and we make it again every day through our choices, words and actions. Never underestimate the power of small, cumulative changes to create better environments and long-lasting improvements to mental health and wellbeing. Over time, we will create supportive workplaces across all aspects of the circus arts – making our companies, studios and schools places where everyone can do their best work and thrive.

For more information and access to a range of free resources, please visit our website.

Related content: Mental Health & Circus; The Elephant in the Room– Crucial Resources and a Call for Action, Creating a Mental Health-Conscious Circus Environment; An Interview with Dr. Fleur van Rens.

All photos provided courtesy of The Arts Wellbeing Collective.
The Arts Wellbeing Collective
The Arts Wellbeing Collective is an Arts Centre Melbourne initiative that promotes positive mental health in the Australian performing arts industry. The Arts Wellbeing Collective is by industry, for industry and seeks positive systemic, cultural change. Since the Pilot Program in 2017, the Arts Wellbeing Collective has grown rapidly to be a comprehensive, sector-wide initiative – the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. For more information, visit artswellbeingcollective.com.au

The Arts Wellbeing Collective

The Arts Wellbeing Collective is an Arts Centre Melbourne initiative that promotes positive mental health in the Australian performing arts industry. The Arts Wellbeing Collective is by industry, for industry and seeks positive systemic, cultural change. Since the Pilot Program in 2017, the Arts Wellbeing Collective has grown rapidly to be a comprehensive, sector-wide initiative – the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. For more information, visit artswellbeingcollective.com.au