In dance, pushing through pain is often glorified. Dancers can be reluctant to take time off when sick or injured for fear of missing out on opportunities. It can feel even harder to justify when the pain isn't physical. Though it's becoming more commonly acknowledged that mental health is just as important as physical health, a dance career doesn't leave much time to address mental or emotional issues.
But dancers need to take care of their mental well-being to be able to perform at their best, says Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund. So what can you do if you need a mental health day?
It largely depends what kind of contract you're on and what kind of relationship you have with your director. The sick or personal time that's built into some contracts can be used for mental health purposes—it's up to you whether you'd like to disclose what exactly you're using it for. (In the case of a supportive boss, it may help to be transparent, but keep in mind that the stigma around mental health means that some directors may react negatively.)
Freelance dancers may face harder choices if they have no time off included in their contracts. Drury recommends keeping in mind the benefits of taking a break, and thinking of it as an investment into the longevity of your career.
Dancers can also be proactive about building time into their schedules to check in on their well-being so that they don't have to miss work. If you find that you're having to take frequent mental health days, it's probably time to have a therapist help you address the root of the problem and develop more constructive ways of coping, says Drury.
What Companies Can Do
Directors can take steps to create a healthy work environment for their dancers—and hopefully reduce the need to take time away from the studio. For Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan, this means being selective about what kinds of personalities she brings into the studio as choreographers, and hosting feedback sessions where dancers can anonymously share thoughts and grievances.
When dancers do need to take time off, companies could help by having specified mental health days or clarifying that sick days can be used for mental as well as physical issues, says Drury. If dancers feel less guilty about taking these days, it will ultimately make them more effective.
Although Cincinnati Ballet doesn't have a specific mental health day policy, Morgan says she's happy to support dancers who are going through a mental health crisis and is flexible about taking time off. She encourages them to speak with the company's human resource representative, who has expertise around these issues.
When to Take a Mental Health Day
- If you can't focus in the studio because of a life event. Take time to address the issue at hand—distraction can lead to injury and can become a safety concern for other dancers.
- If you feel you might be close to a place of crisis or burnout. Check in with yourself before your symptoms lead to longer-term problems.
- If your mental health will negatively impact your co-workers.
- If there are appointments related to your mental health that you aren't able to schedule outside work hours.