What is mental health?
In 2004, the World Health Organization redefined mental health as «a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community» (World Health Organization, 2022). This marked a much-welcomed shift from seeing mental health not just as the absence of mental illness but encompassing mental well-being and thriving.
While there is no consensus what mental health framework researchers should use to understand dancers’ mental health, this scoping review adopted Keyes’ two continuum model of mental health to analyse its findings. Keyes suggests to view mental health and illness as two related but distinct dimensions contributing to human functioning. In line with this suggestion, mental health can be understood through emotional well-being (positive affect, hope and perceived satisfaction with life); psychological well-being (self-acceptance, positive relation with others, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery and autonomy) and social well-being (social coherence, social actualization, social acceptance and social contribution). On the other hand, mental illness is described as substantial deviation from normal functioning and is characterized by diagnosable conditions such as depression and anxiety.
From this perspective of mental health individuals can have flourishing, moderate or languishing mental health. Those with complete mental health or flourishing combine high levels of well-being with optimal individual and social functioning; moderate mental health describes individuals that neither exhibit high well-being nor low levels of individual and social functioning; languishing refers to those with low levels of well-being combined with low levels of individual and social functioning. In line with this categorization, individuals with or without a diagnosed mental disorder can languish, have moderate mental health, or flourish.
What are stressors?
An individual’s mental health is likely to be tested by stressors at different moments in their life (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2016). Such stressors can be defined as «environmental demands encountered by an individual» (Sarkar and Fletcher, 2014, p. 8) and are usually more modest disruptions to our everyday lives than major catastrophes. They are multifactorial and experienced on personal, cultural, and environmental levels.
Within dance, there are known sources of physical stress related to dance training, such as high physical workload, and requirements concerning technical skill and mastery of choreographic demands (Blevins et al., 2020). However, there are also psychosocial stressors related to environment (daily tasks and other responsibilities such as managing finances and obligations), personal roles (perceived autonomy or control within a group, competition, social support) and major life events such as death, career or school transitions, injuries (Blevins et al., 2020).
Overview over stressors
Situational stressors: career uncertainty, time management issues, limited economic means and injuries
Interpersonal stressors: asymmetric power exerted by authority figures, perceived pressure and expectations from others, and body image pressure from peers and teachers.
Cultural stressors: factors inherent in dance culture, such as cultural hegemony, set physical ideals, narrow minded identity ideals, cult-like behavior expectations, traditional gender roles, and hierarchical and top-down organization.
The processes of handling stressors described in the studies are broadly categorized either as facilitative or debilitative. Facilitative processes comprise proactive and more robust personal qualities on the one side and protective aspects of the dance environment on the other. Together, these factors appear to either restore or strengthen mental processes and thus act as protective factors in coping mechanisms. Debilitative processes comprise dysfunctional personal qualities and unrelenting features in the dance environments that seemingly jeopardize or imbalance mental health processes.
In the scoping review, we have identified the following factors associated with facilitative and debilitative mental processes:
Facilitative mental processes
Protective personal qualities
mastery-oriented motivational climates
nurture dancers’ autonomy and self-development
perceived as psychologically safe
Debilitative mental processes
Debilitative personal qualities
has tacit or explicit expectations to conform to ideals
exerts pressure to perform and to fit the mould dictated by the dance world
Gatekeepers, such as teachers, choreographers, and artistic directors wield a lot of power and authority in this climate
Mental health outcomes
Mental processes can lead to either positive or negative mental health outcomes. Positive outcomes indicate the presence of mental health (flourishing). In this case, the individual has enough personal resources to be protected from, adapt to, withstand, or swiftly rebound from an encounter with a stressor to avoid a permanent decrease in one’s mental health. This can lead to increased task engagement and optimal performance. Negative outcomes can imply that stressors have exceeded available resources, leading to the individual moving on a spectrum between the absence of mental health (languishing) and the presence of mental illness. This can result in either mental health challenges, like distress, loneliness and exhaustion or mental illness as for example, depression, self-harm, and/or substance abuse.