Help students deal with depression.
Not long ago, Jill Cook got a phone call from the office of Melissa Dobbs, director of the Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in Northern Virginia, concerning her daughter Katharine repeatedly not participating in dance class. Cook thanked them for calling and hung up. Then after thinking for a few seconds, she called back and said, “Listen, I have to let you know what’s going on.” Katharine (then 10 years old) had recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that swings sufferers from the extremes of euphoria to deep despair. Being open about her daughter’s condition proved to be a good move. The studio staff responded with concern and understanding and found ways to support Katharine.
Dance training can push students to the limit, and many thrive in this challenging environment. But long hours, competitiveness and the drive toward perfection may send susceptible students over the edge. “Depression is not caused by the dance world,” says Barbara Kravitz, a New York City–based psychoanalyst who danced with Pennsylvania Ballet, “but the profession’s challenges can bring it on if there is a predisposition or vulnerability.” The good news is that dance teachers who are aware of the symptoms and sensitive to the needs of those who suffer can encourage their students’ mental health.
Depression affects 8 to 10 percent of adolescents and is especially common in post-pubescent girls and gay or bisexual youths, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. But mental illness can be tricky to spot since it’s often mistaken for typical preteen and teen moodiness. If a student is late for class and out of sorts now and then, she is probably just having a bad day. But if she exhibits some of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, it’s a cause for concern.
- Withdrawal from social situations (e.g., sitting alone during rehearsal breaks and between classes)
- Agitation, difficulty concentrating
- Weight loss or gain
- Change in appetite and/or sleep habits
- Frequent complaints about headaches and/or stomach aches
- A change in friends
- Becoming easily discouraged
- Signs of self-injury (If you think a student is purposefully cutting themselves, seek help from a psychiatric professional right away.)
So what should you do if you suspect a student might be dangerously depressed? “If you teach in a public school, go to the school counselor,” says Cook, who, in addition to being Katharine’s mom, is assistant director of the American School Counselor Association. Explain your concerns to school personnel who are trained to deal with psychological issues and may have access to a more complete picture of the student’s mental health. “A public school can be held liable if you don’t go through the proper channels,” she says.
If you teach in a studio, it might be okay to speak with the student privately. You could ask, “You don’t seem like yourself. You seem so tired these days. Are you okay?” Or pull a parent aside to say, “Mary has been late recently and that’s not like her.” It’s good for the dancer to know you’re empathetic, concerned and available if she wants to talk. But before approaching the student or family directly, consult with the studio director or owner and consider seeking advice from a trained mental health professional.
Though dance teachers aren’t counselors, they can provide crucial support for students struggling with depression. At Katharine’s studio, teachers are especially mindful of her condition during long recital week rehearsals. “Katharine burns out and some warning sign always comes up. This year she developed a psychogenic cough,” says Cook. “They keep an eye on her and let her go home early if she needs to, or sit out or get a drink of water.”
Anne L. Wennerstrand, who became a psychotherapist after years as a dancer (she performed with Laura Dean and Dancers, among other groups), advises, “Be willing to be flexible. Don’t be too wedded to a plan. If the child is close to tears, don’t keep pushing.” And be especially attuned when a dancer is feeling challenged.
“Difficulty with a movement or step can shake a dancer’s self-esteem,” says Kravitz. “Think about how you can help her through to mastery in a constructive way.” It can seem like a depressed student is just not trying or has a bad attitude, but keep in mind that, in this case, the behavior isn’t willful.
While sensitivity is helpful, being overprotective can be counter-productive. “Competition is a normal part of dance,” says Cook. “Keep an eye on kids as they struggle with it, but you can't protect them completely." DT
Janet Weeks is pursuing dance education for special needs children.
Photo: Metropolitan Fine Arts Center staff found ways to support Katharine Cook when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. (photo by and courtesy of Glenn Cook)