Head Connections: Mental Health in the Dance Classroom

It’s the start of the new semester, hoorah!

Time to plan classes, make syllabi, greet new friends and old, and – for a large number of people – it’s time for the awkwardness, anxiety, and general discomfort and threat of getting your accommodation list approved by all your new professors, something that can be particularly difficult for students with invisible needs.

A few years ago statistics showed that in America, for every 1000 students with a disability only 87 would complete an undergraduate degree. That’s appalling. Unpacking those numbers is a complicated process involving cultures of stigma, the medical vs social model of disability, the mind-bending cost of the American healthcare system, the hideous pressure on teachers – adjunct teachers in particular – lack of education about inclusive classrooms… I could go on. In fact I do, I talk about this stuff at conferences and in pedagogy classes and in staff meetings and I co-founded a resources and information network within my own university. But anyway, some more figures:

The Guardian newspaper found that in the UK 87% of first-year university students struggle to cope with the stress of the transition to higher education. 60% say that the main stress is studying, while other issues include isolation, living independently, and financial difficulty. Students with mental health conditions have the highest drop out rate of any disability group in the US – 37%. In 2016 it was found that 78% of British students reported mental health problems over the course of one year, and 33% experienced suicidal thoughts.

Joe Booth, a UK activist, has been gaining support for his Take The Stress Out of Studying (TSOS) campaign, calling for standardized tests to be replaced with “a well-resourced, publicly accountable system, which supports and educates individuals by engaging them rather than pressuring them.” The most recent TSOS blog post, which can also be seen as a close-captioned video here, reports that 48% of 12-year-olds in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week. By the age of 16, 70% report feeling this way at least once a week, and 22% report having negative feelings as often as once a day.

Why all these numbers? Because I’m about to start speaking from personal experience. I know that as soon as someone with a mental health condition starts talking about mental health there’s a strong tendency from people to dismiss them, or to assume that they’re over-exaggerating the problem. I’m not. These numbers are the proof – if you need it – that mental health in our education system is in utter crisis. Now I want to talk to you about some of the things that crisis does.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and PTSD. I experience panic-inducing, frequently debilitating flashbacks, which can be accompanied by hyper-vigilance, depression, suicidality, nausea, disassociation, shaking… the list goes on. How often I experience flashbacks can vary from daily to weekly to monthly, and they can easily last a whole day, sometimes more. I started having panic attacks several times a day when I was 17, I have been on and off medication. I do not receive formal accommodations from my university. I am a final year PhD student.

I hid my mental health issues for around decade because I was ashamed of them. One of the main ways I justified this to myself was “I don’t need help because I’m doing fine in school.” If I could submit every assignment, pass every test, get to class… I didn’t need help. I never questioned the COST of submitting every assignment, passing every test, going to every class… because in my mind I could stop having mental health issues if I just worked harder. I could control them, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But paying that cost every day had – of course – a crushing effect on my mental health. And then I stopped being able to do those things.

Dance valourises physical virtuosity. Dance champions the idea that the body is intelligent, versatile, adaptive, and capable. Dance does not do so well with the idea that your brain can incapacitate your body. Dance thinks of itself as a healing modality, one which you practice to get more healthy, happy, wise and well.

My biggest problem is not with academic or written work – there’s usually enough time given to those assignments that I can find some way to get around them. My biggest problem is that during a flashback I should not dance. Doing so makes my skin crawl, makes me want to vomit, makes me want to curl up on the floor. Dancing forces me to do the opposite of what I need to do, which is stop, listen to my self, and allow myself to come back to a place that I feel safe in again. The pressure from dance as an institution is that dance class IS a safe place, and if I would just try and be present and in tune with my body then the problem would go away. It doesn’t. Interestingly, ballet is slightly easier than other forms because I know what’s coming in a class. I know I CAN get through a class or, in fact, hold down a performing career. But I need to be able to make choices about when to make myself keep going, when to do less, and when to make myself completely stop.

Trying to tell dance teachers about this problem:

“So you have some feelings…”
“No, I have a panic disorder.”
“So you have some big feelings.”

“It doesn’t look from the outside like there’s a problem.”

“Why don’t you just start class, because you’re not injured, and just see how you go?”

“But you seem so happy.”

“I understand, sometimes I feel terrible too, but dancing always helps.”

“If you’re sat on the side you need to be watching and writing and to hand that in at the end so I can see you’re still engaged with the class.”

Sigh

All of these responses are very well intentioned, but all implicitly ask me to accommodate to the class by admitting that I need less.

In contrast, the absolute best response that I have had from a dance teacher whom I went to about this problem was this:

I don’t understand the problem, but I trust you. I will not ask you why you’re sitting out of my classes. You can tell me if you want to. You can answer questions or offer observations from the side or not as you are capable. But I will accept your assessment of what you can and can’t do on the expectation that you will do as much as you can, and that is healthy for you. If you want to walk out of the class at any point and go home, you can do that too.

I can already hear teacher’s hackles rising. I know the argument you want to make: “but what if students just use this as an excuse to get out of class whenever they’re feeling tired or stressed?” “What if what they really need is the encouragement to just try a little harder?” “What if they miss so much class that then they can’t do the work?” “I understand that YOU want to try hard and do everything, but most students, if we give them that option, will start missing class left right and center just because they’re having a bad day, and they’ll never get jobs or graduate.”

To which my answer, frankly, is: then make your classroom one that students want to be in, and your content things that they want to learn. Set clear expectations about what you want every student to know and be able to do, and hold them all to that, rather than their ability to be physically present in the room. If students aren’t doing as much as they can, their grade will drop. That’s not your problem. Your problem is giving everyone the opportunity to learn and the space for their efforts towards learning to be fruitful. If your students are not meeting your expectations, you can instigate a process to ensure they do so, and hold them accountable to that, but first you have to believe in what they say they can and cannot do, and what they need to do the things you want.

It is not a teacher’s job to decide what a student’s internal experience of mental health actually is, or what accommodations they need. This gets us into the dangerous territory of “psychological ownership” – a term coined by Julia Gleich and which we blogged about together a few years ago. In a nutshell it means that while you may have educational authority over a group of students, it does not mean you have authority over their lived experience. Teacher’s set expectations for learning and professionalism, and students work out how to meet those expectations, or if those expectations are unreasonable and need negotiation. Again, I hear the problem “but I don’t have the time to design thirty different classes and thirty different rules for thirty students based on their needs.” So don’t. Design a class that meets a broad range of needs, minds, and bodies upfront, and then only adjust for the unexpected. Mental heath issues should be expected in every single university classroom at this point, and failure to plan for them in the face of the statistics above is just asking for more work later. Build inclusivity into your syllabus and your classes and you benefit everyone, including yourself.

Some specific suggestions: at the beginning of each semester teachers usually set out expectations for what students should do if they are injured or sick. What if they added expectations for a mental health event? I’ve heard of teachers bringing red beanbags to class so that students could signal “don’t call on me today.” You could call one part of the class the quiet corner. Red socks mean, “I’m doing as much as I can, but that’s not everything.” Students who have disclosed a mental health condition can leave, and make up the time in another class, or by submitting a physical practice journal/video. Have an exercise that doesn’t involve touching as a ready backup to partnered touch work. Bring mental health out into to light of your classroom, and kill the stigma faced by individuals who overwhelmingly feel like they’re a burden, and alone.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but one more point: I’m a grad student. Grad students also teach. In my institution you are not supposed to cancel classes, and I teach a lecture course, which requires a lot of preparation to sub. That means that I frequently get up and teach while mid-flashback, and let me tell you that is not something you ever want to have to do. Funnily enough some of my best performance reviews come from my worst days because I’m so in control of my breathing, my affect, my pacing etc. Mental health issues have taught me to be a better, and sought-after instructor. Teachers have mental health issues too, and I am not trying to set up a binary or an opposition with this post. But when it comes to teachers I don’t really have any answers for how to tackle the problem at a cultural or institutional level, and I think that changing the culture for students might lead to some.

In the end I want more people to be able to be in more classrooms, learning what they love. I want more people to be able to talk about the mental health crisis in academia and how it affects them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to pay the dreadful costs of hiding and silence until they can’t pay anymore. I want dancers and dance teachers to value excellence and professionalism as personal qualities, not as scripted performances. I want everyone reaching out to be seen as an authority on their own experience, without feeling like they have to play down their needs, or like they have to play their needs up in order to deserve help.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

P.s. A note on responses.

This blog has a lot of readers, who give me both support and backlash. I always appreciate both as long as they’re considerate of the fact that there’s a human being on this end of the keyboard.

I just disclosed a lot of mental health stuff that I don’t usually talk about. I am aware of the risks of doing that just as I go on the job market! I hope that people will employ me for my skills and abilities as a dancer and teacher, and – like I said – trust my capacity to do any job that I apply for. I am not unique for what I can do with these conditions – I am just one voice of a very common problem. I have amazing friends, I go to therapy, I have the support I need to make my voice heard, and I hope it chips away at the walls in front of other people.

Image from the Guardian’s series of sketches inspired by the university mental health crisis.

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