Towards a better understanding of the mental health of circus artists: depression

Image of sad clown puppet

Every professional in the circus industry, such as coaches, directors, crew and cast members, has a responsibility regarding the physical and mental health of the person who is the artist. But research about the mental health of circus artists is scarce, consequently it may be difficult for professionals in the circus industry to nourish the mental health of circus artists. In a series of blogs, I will discuss potentially relevant mental health concerns within the circus industry by applying evidence sources from other domains (other arts, and sport). In this blog, I will shed light on depression.

Depression (also known as major depressive disorder and clinical depression) is a common, severe, mood disorder of which symptoms include sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Physical symptoms may also be experienced, such as chronic pain and digestive problems. In the general population of youngish adults, and among elite level athletes, approximately 27% of people can be identified as having a possible depressive disorder (Gulliver et al., 2015).  However, injured athletes are at greater risk of depression compared to non-injured athletes. Based on this, you could conclude that circus artists are at similar risk of developing depression as the general population, and that professionals in the circus industry should provide extra care to nourish the mental health of injured circus artists.  However, it is important to consider other factors that may affect the prevalence of depression among circus artists.

Importantly, it may be argued that circus appeals to people who are at an increased risk of developing mental health problems. In the early 1900’s, circus displayed ‘human oddities’ such as people with physical or mental disabilities, natives from non-Western countries, and persons with unusual talents (Adams, 2016). Albeit subtlety, circus has maintained some of this heritage a century later. Nowadays, the circus industry is namely described as a place where persons who differ from societal norms are socially included and celebrated (Seymour & Wise, 2017). This inclusive circus environment has been reported to facilitate the social and emotional wellbeing of circus artists (Ennis & Tonkin, 2017). Following gravitational hypothesis (Wilk, Desmaris, & Sackett, 1995), you could thus expect that the circus industry attracts individuals who deviate from societal norms in a variety of ways. Research shows that these individuals are more likely to have mental health problems. For example, LGBTQI persons seem numerous in the circus industry, and are at increased risk of mental health concerns such as depression and suicide ideation (King et al., 2008). Because of this, it is likely that mental health problems such as depression are more frequent in the circus industry compared to the general population due to the people that circus attracts.

Furthermore, it is likely that circus attracts creative individuals. It has been speculated that creative people are at increased risk of mental health disorders such as depression. However, a recent meta-analysis failed to identify a simple, direct, relationship between creativity and depression (Paek, Abdulla, & Cramond, 2016). Rather, their work shows that creative individuals may manifest some psychopathological traits that enable original thinking, but not to the degree that it adversely affects overall functioning. Therefore, creativity alone is unlikely to be a risk-factor of depression among circus artists.

Implications for the circus industry

The above research indicates that it is probable that the prevalence of depression among circus artists is at least on par, but likely exceeding, the prevalence of depression in the general population. Based on this, I believe that professionals in the circus industry, such as coaches, directors, crew, and cast members, should be encouraged to engage in activities that improve mental health literacy. Within this, it is of importance that professionals in the circus industry are made aware of communities that are of particular risk of developing depression. Increased mental health literacy will help professionals work with people who are potentially at risk of developing a depressive disorder, and will allow them to feel more confident making appropriate referrals for those that require help.

From a research perspective, I believe it is important to investigate the true prevalence of depressive disorders among circus artists, and to identify any risk factors relevant to the circus industry. This information can be used to tailor mental health literacy programs to the specific needs of the circus community.

Note: If you are struggling with your mental health, please seek immediate support by a licensed professional. If you are unsure where to find support, perhaps because you are working abroad; your first point of contact is your physiotherapist or a doctor such as a general practitioner. Physiotherapists and doctors are part of the healthcare system, and are able to help with requests to be confidentially referred to a licensed psychologist. Alternatively, you could contact a licensed psychologist in your home country for advice. They will also treat your query confidentially, and some may be able to provide online support in your native language. 


Adams, R. (2016). Chapter 13: Freaks of culture: institutions, publics and the subject of ethnographic knowledge. In P. Tait and K. Lavers (Eds.) The Routledge Circus Studies reader. pp. 237-268.

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-5®). American Psychiatric Pub.

Ennis, G.M. and Tonkin, J., 2018. ‘It’s like exercise for your soul’: how participation in youth arts activities contributes to young people’s wellbeing. Journal of Youth Studies21(3), pp.340-359.

Gulliver, A., Griffiths, K.M., Mackinnon, A., Batterham, P.J. and Stanimirovic, R., 2015. The mental health of Australian elite athletes. Journal of science and medicine in sport18(3), pp.255-261.

King, M., Semlyen, J., Tai, S.S., Killaspy, H., Osborn, D., Popelyuk, D. and Nazareth, I., 2008. A systematic review of mental disorder, suicide, and deliberate self harm in lesbian, gay and bisexual people. BMC psychiatry8(1), p.70 -87.

Paek, S. H., Abdulla, A. M., & Cramond, B. (2016). A Meta-Analysis of the Relationship Between Three Common Psychopathologies—ADHD, Anxiety, and Depression—and Indicators of Little-c Creativity. Gifted Child Quarterly60(2), 117–133.

Seymour, K., & Wise, P. (2017). Circus Training for Autistic Children: Difference, Creativity, and Community. New Theatre Quarterly33(1), 78–90.

Wilk, S. L., Desmaris, L. B. , & Sackett, P. R. (1995). Gravitation to jobs commensurate with ability: Longitudinal and cross-sectional tests. Journal of Applied Psychology, 80, 79-85.

The journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus: “It’s like placing for another Olympics”

Recently, our research project about career transitions from elite gymnastics to professional circus was published in the Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. I interviewed eight (inter)national level gymnasts who achieved a career as a circus artist. What can we learn from their experiences? Our analysis showed that the journey from elite gymnastics to professional circus is challenging. We identified three phases within this transition process:

  • During the realising phase, the gymnasts try to achieve a circus contract in order to become professional circus artists. The gymnasts participate in audition processes, intensive training programs, and often face several rejections. High levels of psychological resilience are required to be successful in obtaining a circus contract.
  • The adapting phase requires new circus artists to adjust to their new life. The former gymnasts will encounter various stressors during this phase. Some are similar to those commonly experienced in sport, for example the high physical demands of circus. Other stressors are specific to the circus environment, such as unique performance pressures, managing the risks involved with several circus disciplines, interdependency, and fitting into the circus culture. Due to these stressors, the new circus artist may feel overwhelmed, isolated, and may lose their self-confidence.
  • During the thriving phase the circus artist flourishes both in terms of performance as well as psychological wellbeing. Key to achieve this thriving phase were experiences of freedom, personal development, and social connections. Achieving the thriving phase was indicative of the artists’ career longevity as a circus artist.

49698538_10156293113424779_8692261857114718208_oWe can use this information to help prospective circus artists during their journeys from sport to the big-top. During the realising and adapting phases of the career transition, the ‘social support’ component of psychological resilience is expected to weaken because the new circus artists are away from their existing social support networks. Yet this form of support is very important during these phases. To support psychological resilience during these phases we recommend:

  • Formalised buddy systems in which new circus artists are matched with more experienced circus artists by their circus companies.
  • Practitioners in gymnastics are encouraged to remain in contact with retired gymnasts during the realising and adapting phases of their career transitions.

To facilitate thriving, we recommend circus companies to create and maintain an autonomy-supportive environment, in which circus artists may voice their opinions, feel listened to, and have opportunities to continuously develop their skills (be it circus skills, creative skills, or any other skills that could be applied to the circus context).


Van Rens, F.E.C.A., & Filho, E. (in press). Realising, adapting, and thriving in career transitions from gymnastics to contemporary circus arts. The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology. 

Download the full-text publication for free here, or view it on the journal’s website.