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Cirque De-Stress: Promoting Public Mental Health Messaging Through Circus Arts

Public Health Approaches to Mental Health Messaging in University settings has primarily been through presentations, poster campaigns, brochures, websites, and more recently social media. Although each of these approaches has value, they are in significant competition with the marketing of other services and resources using similar approaches and are prone to be easily overlooked or dismissed in the context of information overload. The performance arts provide a unique approach to grab student's attention, provide meaningful metaphors for dealing with stress and mental health issues, and provide an entertaining format promoting information retention. Building upon the early success of a simple exercise in feather balancing at a University event for incoming freshman, the University of Minnesota's Provost Committee on Student Mental Health's Creativity Committee produced a one day event , "Cirque De-Stress", in collaboration with multiple University departmental partners and Circus Mojo, a troop from Kentucky which regularly provides hospital performances. Seven thirty minute shows were offered during the course of the day. The themes of balance and juggling were continuously featured as metaphors for balancing one's academic life and juggling multiple responsibilities and were highlighted through ring and ball juggling, high wire walking, gymnastics, circus ball walking, aerial acts, specially choreographed performances on the gym wheel, and balancing exercises using volunteers from the audience. Between performances students were encouraged to visit multiple tables in the periphery that highlighted available campus services for stress reduction and mental health.

The metaphors of balance and juggling were continued with opportunities to attempt to ride a unicycle, juggle stress balls and scarves, balance a peacock feather, or try to learn a yo-yo trick. Stress reduction resources that were feature included online courses, mental health counseling, mindful meditation, message, yoga, and Tai-Chi classes. Opportunities to try Reiki, hand messages, chair messages, laugher yoga, get a picture taken in circus costumes, and visit with interactive animals (therapy dogs and a therapy chicken) were available. Over 2000 attendees participated. Both qualitative and quantitative assessments of the event confirmed that using circus arts was successful in promoting mental health on campus.

Dr Gary ChristensonDr Gary Christenson

Dr. Gary Christenson Chief Medical Officer of Boynton Health Service on the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities Campus where his is also an adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry. He is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and has special expertise in college mental health, impulsive and compulsive disorders, and the interface of the arts and medicine. Dr. Christenson chairs Boynton's Art Committee, which oversees an arts program featuring special exhibitions, a permanent collection of art centered on the artistic achievements of University alumni, students, staff, and faculty, as well as live musical performances in coordination with the University's Music Therapy Program.

Dr. Christenson is the current president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, an international organization committed to education, advocacy, and research promoting the arts contributions to health and healing. Dr. Christenson chaired the host committee of the Society's Conference in Minneapolis in 2010. He is also the immediate past co-chair of the Midwest Arts in Healthcare Network. He is a regularly featured speaker at the The Art of Good Health and Wellbeing conference held annually in Australia. His article "Why We Need the Arts in Medicine" was featured in the July 2011 issue of Minnesota Medicine, the journal of the Minnesota Medical Association.

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