Injured Dancers and Depression: Offering Aid Physically and Mentally

Our blog article this month comes from one of our newest Wasatch II members, Daylin Williams. Her insight gained through personal experience with injury and mental health is invaluable for dancers everywhere, especially inured dancers dealing with depression.

My Injury Journey

In August of 2014 I found myself in the operating room trusting an unfamiliar surgeon to repair my first major dance injury. As a dancer preparing to enter a collegiate dance program, I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t have to relive that experience. I wonder if I would have changed my budding future plans if I had known I would relive that experience. In fact, I would relive it in September 2018, January 2019, July 2019, and November 2020. 

Seemingly endless doctor’s visits, scans, and rehabilitation appointments became a normal part of life among college classes and exams. I spent hours sitting on the side watching my peers rehearse, perform, and create while my soul ached for the opportunity to move again. I often asked myself if my journey as a dance artist was over, but my head and heart felt an overwhelming darkness whenever the question burdened my mind. I had dealt with depression my whole life, but were my injuries worsening my depressive symptoms? Did other injured dancers feel this? Was I not alone? I took these questions and began to research. Here’s what I found.

Injury and its Mental Toll

Nearly 90% of professional dancers will face an injury in their career. While it is easy to see the physical manifestations of an injury, especially those requiring extensive amounts of time off stage, it’s not as easy to see the mental and emotional consequences of injury. A study that measured the psychological stress among dancers being treated for musculoskeletal injuries determined that, “60.1% of dancers met requirements for referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist.” A different study done among injured dancers stated, “The two most frequent symptoms of depression were fatigue and lack of energy. The most frequent symptoms of hopelessness were uncertainty about the future, doubts about fulfilling one’s hope of success, and not being particularly lucky.” 

Depressive Symptoms Slow the Healing Process

I definitely felt those symptoms of depression and hopelessness. I also felt like these symptoms were impeding my healing and rehabilitation process. I found an article in Pointe Magazine that explained my feelings. It states, “Depressive symptoms can slow the healing process by hurting concentration, cause loss of sleep and appetite…” It then says, “patients with leg wounds who had depression were four times as likely to experience delayed recovery.”

So what contributes to these depressive symptoms in dancers? The article in Pointe Magazine says, “Dancers’ fusion of self and body is so complete that when they can’t move, their world unravels.” The Journal of Sports Behavior featured an article highlighting the psychological challenges of dancers that reads, “The physical loss of not being able to train and perform is usually accompanied by a loss of self-identity.” It then continues by stating that injury “…acts as a threat to the athlete’s self-concept, belief system, social and occupational functioning, values, commitments, and emotional equilibrium.”

What can we do to help injured dancers?

The research was overwhelming. Clearly there was a connection between injury and mental health challenges in dancers, but it seemed as though the only emotional support available to dancers in these situations were from their own family members and friends instead of from the company or institution they were a part of. I became passionate about advocating for more effective intervention. 

A study among doctors examining the relationship between psychological factors and injured dancers concluded, “This type of intervention may require that dance companies change what many believe is the traditional approach to dealing with dancers (i.e., breaking the dancer to make the dancer) and instead provide support for dancers who are experiencing psychological distress. The benefits of such an approach may not only reduce dance related injuries but also improve the lives of elite ballet dancers: a potential win-win situation for both dancers and dance companies.”

The dance world would certainly profit from therapists and counselors made available to injured dancers along with a greater understanding from directors, teachers, and fellow dancers. I was lucky to find support from my professors and peers, but I know that not every dancer finds that. To other injured or recovering dancers out there – know that you are not alone. To all other members of the dance community – let’s come together to offer empathy and love to those who may be silently suffering right beside us. 

We’d love to hear your ideas – how can arts administrators make mental health care more accessible for dancers? Comment below!

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1 “Dance Medicine.” Children’s of Alabama. Accessed November 12, 2018.
2 Air, Mary Elizabeth. “Psychological Distress among Dancers Seeking Outpatient Treatment for Musculoskeletal Injury.” Journal of Dance Medicine & Science 17, (09, 2013): 115-125.
3 Sanahuja-Maymó, Montse, Carles Pérez-Testor, and Carles Virgili. Depressive Symptoms and Associated Factors in a Sample of Injured Collegiate Dancers. Proceedings of IADMS 16th Annual Meeting, West Palm Beach. International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, 2006. 264-68. Accessed November 11, 2018.
4  “Om My Goodness.” Pointe, 10, 2012, 48.
5 “Om My Goodness.” Pointe, 10, 2012, 48.
6 Macchi, Rosemarie, and Jane Crossman. “After the Fall: Reflections of Injured Classical Ballet Dancers.Journal of Sports Behavior 19, no. 3 (August 1996): 221-34. Accessed November 11, 2018.
7 Adam, Maya U., Glenn S. Brassington, Hans Steiner, and Gordon O. Matheson. “Psychological Factors Associated with Performance-Limiting Injuries in Professional Ballet Dancers.” Journal of Dance Medicine & Science 8, no. 2 (May 2004): 43–46.