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Enhancing mental wellbeing through the performing arts

October 17, 2017
Enhancing mental wellbeing through the performing arts

Enhancing mental wellbeing through the Performing Arts

We live in an age where technology permeates our lives. For young people particularly, social media is an increasingly important form of communication. Used positively, it enhances social and emotional development.  Yet, with one in ten children suffering some form of mental health issue at any one time, most commonly anxiety, depression, self-harm and eating disorders, there is a requirement for all people working with children to understand the role of many different causes and manifestations of mental health. This article considers one area of mental health challenge – the role of social media - and explores ways in which positive engagement in performing arts can be beneficial. 

Concerns over the use of social media have repeatedly been raised by Parliament. Issues raised include anxiety, depression, social comparison, attention disorders, concentration issues and the sheer amount of time spent on social media communication platforms. Reports are mixed as to the extent of the impact of social media usage, but what has become clear is that the outcome of such reviews is mainly focussed on the content of the social media being interacted with rather than the number of contact hours. For example, sites promoting the use of self-harm, anorexia and ideal body image states, have raised concerns at government levels and are understood to be more impactful than the potential loss of concentration and attention associated with the number of hours spent on social media.

Three Stagecoach Kids Dancing

Cyber bullying - increased by the anonymity afforded by many social media outlets - is another area of concern. Cyber bullying, like all bullying, acts to undermine self-esteem and confidence in oneself. Considerable research has been conducted into social media sites promoting body image comparison. This research consistently demonstrates that young women and girls report experiencing a more negative mood, lower body esteem and a desire to make changes to their appearance compared to sites that don’t promote such comparison.

With all this potential for harm to children and young adults, the question has to be asked if any good can be found within social media usage at all. The answer is a resounding “yes”! Social media has many advantages; it can help develop social support mechanisms and provide coping strategies and sharing of important information and ideas amongst users. It can help individuals feel further connected to their community and therefore to society – a primary motivational drive. Some sites also promote the posting of good images about oneself thereby encouraging the focus of attention on positive aspects of one’s self rather than negative aspects. As a young performer at Stagecoach Performing Arts Haywards Heath mentioned: “I’m really quiet at school and I always really surprise my friends when I share the videos of our performances in the shows – they can never believe it’s me!”.

Social media is also a powerful learning and evaluation tool. Increasingly, young people learn informally through accessing sites providing guidance on how a dance routine, a piece of music or a section of a play could be performed, and offer the opportunity to view these from an external, and sometimes, professional perspective.  Social media can also promote healthy lifestyle changes by promoting the widespread awareness of health issues. 

For all the uses of social media though, there is still no substitute for the physical act of taking part in performing arts directly. Performing arts offer opportunities for children and young adults to take all the advantages of social media (helpful social comparison, social support and observable demonstrations) and apply them to a real-life setting. Opportunities are afforded performers to engage in theatre arts across dance, drama and music while feeling supported to achieve their objectives. Performing arts can be subjective and evaluative in nature and so the importance of a socially acceptable, challenging and supportive environment is crucial to individual development.

Across all age ranges, there is substantive evidence that sustained engagement in performing arts impacts positively upon multiple aspects of learning and wellbeing. Students are always keen to highlight the sense of belonging and community that being part of Stagecoach Performing Arts promotes. Directly and indirectly, the impacts of social media are tackled, through giving students agency, voice and confidence. It is great that Stagecoach have teamed up with the mental health charity YoundMinds to raise vital funds and awareness of support available to young people experiencing mental health difficulties.  

On a recent visit to Stagecoach Swansea during the ‘skills term’ I observed issues around cyber bullying (a topic chosen by the students) being explored through Stage 3 students devising a ‘Theatre in Education’ (TiE) piece for the younger students, encouraging open discussion and free expression of concerns and solutions.  As this and much other work at Stagecoach demonstrates young people have the means and sophistication to explore complex issues raised by social media. Providing young with exciting, relevant and engaging performing arts experiences provides a creative framework for promoting positive and mentally healthy engagement with and through social media. 

By Dr Alison Daubney, PhD

Dr Alison Daubney is an international learning expert and annual reviewer for Stagecoach.
Gregory Daubney CPsychol, MSc, is a Chartered Sport and Exercise Psychologist, workshop leader and co-author (with Alison Daubney) of “Performance Anxiety: A practical guide for music teachers”. Recent collaborative research includes “Music in Mind”, exploring music programmes for young people with mental health problems. 

3.  Hallam, S. (2015) The Power of Music
President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities (2011) Reinvesting in Arts Education