Aerial changes your perspective. Copyright ValentinaThe Guardian published an article recently about how trapeze classes can help relieve mental health problems like depression. It made us think about how circus in general can also do this.

The Guardian’s article, written by Grace Wong, who is bipolar herself, went along to one of My Aerial Home’s classes specifically aimed at people with mental health problems. These classes have been funded by Status Employment, a charity that helps people get back to work. The attendees have been referred to the classes through their GPs or community mental health teams.

The basic idea is that physical activity can help relieve some of the symptoms of depression and other mental health problems.

Some of the ways that physical activity in general can help with mental health problems are through the release of endorphins (neurotransmitters that help us to feel good) that exercise can encourage and the fact the activity takes your mind off the worries and stresses of daily life.

Where trapeze, and, I suppose, aerial classes in general, differ from other forms of exercise is their focus on strength. It requires a lot of upper body and core strength just to get up on the apparatus without assistance. Jo Rixom of Status Employment said: "If you're feeling physically stronger, you feel mentally stronger."

Trapeze can help you get over the bar. Copyright José RuizThere is also a symbolic element to learning the aerial arts; gaining a new perspective on the world through being in the air and/or upside down as well as reaching upwards and getting over the (trapeze) bar. This symbolism seems to help many people. One of the commenters on the article mentioned he runs for relief from his anxiety and depression but that he has to run up steep hills. He said: “It's about getting to the top, almost as if the hill is the illness itself and if I reach the top I will find my way out of it/see the route ahead. I get home feeling a real sense of peace and calm.”

The process of slowly improving and achieving goals seems to be important in the therapeutic process. Grace Wong said in the article’s comments: “I took six long weeks to actually get up onto the bar without assistance, but when I did it, it was the biggest achievement.”

The article regularly points out that trapeze or aerial classes are not going to suit everyone and can, in some cases, make the depression worse. It’s also regularly mentioned that any physical activity can help to improve mental health problems. We’ve seen how the aerial arts offer something different to most other activities but I also think circus skills in general have traits that set them apart from most other physical activities and that can help boost confidence, social skills, self-belief and mental strength while still releasing those feel-good chemicals and taking your mind off your troubles.

As we’ve touched upon in other articles on this blog, circus skills like juggling, staff spinning, diabolo and poi spinning are non-competitive physical activities; there’s no danger of losing in these arts. I imagine losing a squash game or football match might not help with mental health problems. They’re also fun whereas many people find going for a jog or going to the gym a tortuous idea.

The basics of many circus activities are fairly easy to learn. This means rewarding achievements can be made almost from the first moment you pick up the prop. With the right instruction you can be doing something you thought you’d never be able to in pretty quick time. The confidence boost and realisation that some of the things you thought were impossible for you can, actually, be achieved, are two things that can help alleviate anxiety and depression. These improvements and achievements can continue indefinitely. Many of them do not require such an exhausting physical exertion as, say, achieving a better time running 5 km, which can be counterproductive as all the advice seems to be to keep activities gentle.

Reg BoltonSerious research in this area is lacking, Reg Bolton authored Circus in a Suitcase in 1983 and completed a PhD thesis entitled Why Circus Works in 2004. While these publications aren’t specifically targeted at mental health problems like depression they do discuss many of the attributes of circus that can help with such problems.

Jill Maglio and Carol McKinstry published a paper in 2007 looking at how circus and occupational therapy can work together in enhancing the health and well-being of young people. Again, this paper isn’t focussed on depression and other mental health issues specifically. Even so, it highlights many advantages circus can bring to general well-being that would be beneficial to people with mental health problems as well as children and adults in general.

In this analysis of the components of a circus program taken from Maglio and McKinstry’s paper you can clearly see that most of the mental traits promoted by circus would help those coping with mental health problems:

• Warm-up games – opportunities for team work, collaboration, verbal and non-verbal communication, increased challenges, and a mix of attainable and challenging tasks.

• Acrobatics - core, upper and lower limb strength and flexibility, body awareness, trust, positive risk-taking, giving and receiving physical support.

• Acrobalance - team work, body awareness, problem-solving, trust, safe and positive physical interaction, gender stereotypes around strength challenged, and a mix of achievable and challenging tasks promoting self-efficacy.

• Manipulation (juggling, hula hooping) – grading of tasks to increase challenge. Opportunities to improve coordination, gross, and fine motor skills. Promotion of rapid thinking, reaction, persistence and practice. Opportunities for peer education, creativity, and improvisation of combining skills learned.

• Balance-based activities – promotes reduced fear of heights and physical limits. Peer-to-peer support and trust of self and others. Taking responsibility for safety of self and others is integrated. Awareness of self in relation to others and the physical environment is continually addressed.

• Performance - promotes creativity, collaboration, breaking down of inhibitions, exploration of theatrical themes, giving and receiving social support, experience of taking on different roles, development of different characters, brainstorming, problem-solving, and various forms of communication.

It’s not as easy as all that though. There are at least two more things that are extremely important if circus arts are going to help people conquer, or at least alleviate, their mental health problems. Firstly, there’s building the motivation and courage to get out of the house and attend some sort of class or group doing these activities. That can be the hardest part of participating in an activity for people with these problems. One aid to this might be a referral from a GP as happens with the trapeze classes we talked about above.

The other big issue is being able to do this sort of thing in a supportive and understanding group. It seems that attending classes specifically for people with mental health problems is advantageous because your classmates and instructors understand, at least to some extent, what you are going through. It’s important these groups are a safe place to “feel rubbish” and you’re surrounded with people who can support you when you do. The local juggling club is unlikely to be able to provide the level of support and understanding that would be necessary if these activities are to be beneficial and not something that actually makes you feel worse.

What is needed is more research in this area. If the research showed that circus arts in general were, indeed, beneficial in treating mental health problems then more funding might be made available for classes, as happened with My Aerial Home’s trapeze sessions.