As I watched a talented performing arts group, the Youth Singers of Calgary, perform this spring, I witnessed incredible teamwork, energy and growth. My 12-year-old daughter — who had been struggling with anxiety and low self-confidence — literally came into herself during the performances and tours. She now bursts with enthusiasm and pride.
Reflecting on its nearly 40 years of operations, I’ve come to understand how this program has nurtured not only my daughter but tens of thousands of children, shaping them into resilient adults.
As a psychologist, I couldn’t help but consider the link between this type of experience and mental health. I decided to research this further and the evidence indeed supports the significant benefits of performing arts for young people.
Mental-health challenges have been a growing concern for today’s young people. According to the World Health Organization, approximately one in seven youth aged 10 to 19 experience a mental-health disorder, including depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders.
There are many interventions, including therapy and medication. Exercise, diet and sleep are basic building blocks of mental wellness, as are social connection and community support. Mental wellness requires a host of supports and habits, and the social and physical isolation of the pandemic left young people more vulnerable.
There are many elements of the performing arts that contribute to mental well-being. Performing (dancing and singing in particular) in groups provides a healthy emotional outlet, social support, an inclusive community, and reduces stress and anxiety.
According to a recent study on the role of the arts in the life and mental health of young people, when young people have challenges communicating their feelings, channelling through song and dance is an effective outlet.
A supportive social environment outside of school where young people have common interests and can feel part of a community gives them the opportunity to connect. According to a recent Psychology Today article on The Mental Health Benefits of Singing in a Choir (July 2023), choir experiences reduce loneliness and foster healthy relationship development.
In a study conducted in Colombia, artistic expression was recognized as managing psychological stress and emotions such as anger, depression and anxiety. Performing arts-based group activities are linked to a decrease in negative emotions.
Another benefit of performing arts, and choirs in particular, is that they lower symptoms of depression. In fact, nearly three out of four choir singers report increased optimism. Further, 80 per cent of choir singers expect more good things than bad things to happen to them, compared to only 55 per cent of the general public.
The performing arts are often viewed as less active and not as team-oriented compared with sports. As a result of this misconception, many sources of community and corporate funds focus on sports rather than the performing arts. The skills and teamwork developed through the performing arts are just as, if not more, impactful to the mental well-being of our children and youth.
Whether it’s sports or the performing arts, both employ movement and the ability to adapt our actions to those of others. Developing empathy, a unique benefit of the performing arts, culminates in public performances, and fosters physical, technical and social skills development. As a result, youth build self-awareness and confidence. These lifelong benefits create better adults who can adapt and thrive in the challenges they face in their work and lives.
The case is clear: support for the performing arts must be elevated. As a society, we need to support the mental health of our young people. The performing arts are an incredible avenue for developing resiliency and supporting mental wellness. Groups that involve singing and dance are particularly beneficial as they enable teamwork, physical activity, and a sense of community and social support.
It’s imperative that these groups receive equitable funding alongside community sports, so all of our young people can flourish.
Dr. Laura Hambley Lovett is a psychologist and a parent.