Mental health can be considered a continuum, it ranges from aspects of negative mental health (for example the presence of mental illnesses), to aspects of positive mental health (for example high levels of flourishing). Some research has shown that doing circus classes at a recreational level might be good for mental health (McGrath & Stevens, 2019; Stevens, McGrath, & Ward, 2019), but other than that we did not know much about mental health in circus. This is why I decided to conduct a scientific study on the mental health of circus artists. To achieve this, I created a questionnaire named ‘The Big Mental Health of Circus Artists Survey’ to learn more about circus artists’ experiences in early 2020 (pre-COVID19). The questionnaire consisted of a few scientifically validated scales that measure different components of mental health. Together with colleague Dr. Brody Heritage, I analysed the first part of the data, which included responses from 500 circus artists (worldwide). In this first analysis, we looked at factors that predict emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress, and flourishing in circus artists. Before interpreting our findings, it is important to realise that emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress are not the same as depressive, anxiety, and stress disorders. When it comes to experiencing these emotional states, there are some benefits in terms of efficient functioning in demanding situations (Perkins & Corr, 2005). That said, these negative emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress are also indicators of poor psychological wellbeing. In this post, I’d like to share some of the highlights of our research findings. If you are interested in the full, detailed, scientific, publication of our findings, please take a look at our publication in ‘Psychology of Sport and Exercise’.
Circus artists experience lower levels of mental health than other populations
First, we looked at the average scores of emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as flourishing. We conducted statistical analyses to compare these scores to scores from other non-clinical groups (for example: athletes), and found that circus artists experienced greater emotional states of depression, anxiety and stress, and significantly smaller levels of flourishing. The pie-charts below show the percentages of circus artists who scored in the normal, mild, moderate, severe and extremely severe categories of emotional states of stress, anxiety, and depression. As you can see, over half of the circus artists scored within the normal range for each of those emotional states. However 13% scored in the severe/extremely severe range for stress, 18% for anxiety, and 18% for depression. This means that there is reason to be concerned about the mental health of circus artists.
Factors that affect the mental health of circus artists
We conducted further analyses to see which factors affect the mental health of circus artists (looking at emotional states of stress, anxiety, depression, and flourishing). We used some snazzy statistical techniques (feel free to geek out on our full-text publication if you’re keen to learn more about that) and created statistical models which explained 24%-51% of the variance in emotional states of depression, anxiety, stress, and flourishing. The bullet points below are a rough summary about how personal and circus factors affect the mental health of circus artists. The full findings are quite complex, and to get a better insight into the specifics, I recommend you to read our article in Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
- Psychological resilience (both state and trait resilience) was related to higher levels of mental health. Interestingly, circus artists scored higher on psychological resilience than other non-clinical populations.
- Older circus artists generally had higher levels of mental health than younger ones
- Circus artists with more years of circus experience generally reported higher levels of mental health
- Transgender and gender diverse circus artists generally reported lower levels of mental health than cis-male or cis-female circus artists (no differences between cis-male and cis-female circus artists were found).
- Object manipulators generally reported the lowest levels of mental health. Lower than aerial acrobats, floor acrobats, or equilibrium artists. Floor acrobats tended to experience higher levels of mental health than aerial acrobats.
- Amateur circus artists generally reported higher levels of mental health than (semi)professional, student, and retired circus artists.
Moving forward, what can we do with this information?
There are a couple of important practical implications of our research findings.
First, our findings show that the intense physical and mental requirements associated with professional circus may affect the mental health of circus artists in a similar manner as professional athletes and other performing artists (e.g., ballet). This in itself speaks for the importance for consistent mental health support tailored to circus artists’ experiences.
Second, given the strong association between resilience and mental health among circus artists, evidence-based interventions focusing on building psychological resilience could increase the mental health health of circus artists. Because of the relatively low levels of mental health among circus artists despite their high levels of resilience, it seems that high levels of resilience are key in successful circus careers. Psychological resilience interventions may thus not only improve mental health, but may also affect career longevity of circus artists. Also, interventions aimed at improving mental health literacy, help seeking, and reducing stigma could be useful in increasing the mental health of circus artists.
Finally, because we found differences in the mental health of circus artists based on their circus disciplines, it would be useful to further understand what external stressors (for example, in the training environment) could contribute to these differences in mental health. This knowledge can then be used to optimise the circus environment to facilitate the mental health of circus artists.
McGrath, R., & Stevens, K. (2019). Forecasting the Social Return on Investment Associated with Children’s Participation in Circus-Arts Training on their Mental Health and Well-Being. International Journal of the Sociology of Leisure, 2(1-2), 163-193.
Perkins, A. M., & Corr, P. J. (2005). Can worriers be winners? The association between worrying and job performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 38(1), 25-31.
Stevens, K., McGrath, R., & Ward, E. (2019). Identifying the influence of leisure-based social circus on the health and well-being of young people in Australia. Annals of Leisure Research, 22(3), 305-322. https://doi.org/10.1080/11745398.2018.1537854