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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 April, 2004, 23:55 GMT 00:55 UK
Dance therapy for mental patients
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

Picture provided by Reach for Dance
Mental health patients benefit from dance therapy
Dancing may be a way to tone the body, but it is also a dynamic way to exercise the mind, say health experts.

An ambitious project has been launched to use the power of dance to improve the lives of people with mental illness to help them.

The Reach4Dance initiative will target patients with long-term mental health problems.

Dance and movement are known to have physical and psychological benefits for those with mental illness.

A recent study by academic Sarah Cook, who has personal experience of mental health problems, shows dance is a powerful therapeutic tool.

As a student, she ended up in hospital for several months after becoming suicidally depressed.

She discovered dance more than 10 years ago and has since used it as a way of dealing with grief, sorrow and other "stress-producing" emotions, quite literally dancing them out of her system.

Dance is a way of dealing with feelings and releasing them, instead of locking them in and going to the doctor with depression and anxiety
Sarah Cook, dance researcher
She said: "I use dance as my personal strategy.

"If someone dies, I will dance through my grief.

"Dance is a way of dealing with feelings and releasing them, instead of locking them in and going to the doctor with depression and anxiety."

As a senior research fellow at the University of Sheffield, she carried out a study of how dance helped 19 women with varying degrees of mental illness.

All the women took part in dance workshops using the 5 Rhythms system, which is designed to encourage women to dance their feelings to music.

Ms Cook said all the dancers said they had felt "positively transformed" by the dancing.

She said: "Dancers reported the experience involved a sense of bursting, or liberation, release of built-up feelings and of relief."

Self esteem

Reach4Dance is another endorsement of the power of dance.

Part of the project involves a group of students from the Hertfordshire-based Arts Educational School, on the brink of starting their professional careers.

They will stage modern and classical performances for patients and their families and carers.

People with mental health problems are often desperately seeking emotional and creative release.
Claire Cattle, Reach4Dance

However, dance is also being used as therapy in small-group settings.

Experienced dancers will hold workshops in medium secure psychiatric units over the course of a year, using dance and movement to build up the patients' confidence and self esteem.

During the workshops, patients will be invited to make costumes, try out movements and put together their own performances.

Much of the work will be done with women.

The first series of workshops for patients with schizophrenia will take place at Chadwick Lodge in Milton Keynes and the first performance will be in Bethlem Hospital in south-east London.

Future funding

Reach4Dance's Claire Cattle said: "People with mental health problems are often desperately seeking emotional and creative release.

"Our team of talented and professional dancers have not only been trained to provide high-quality, creative performances but also to work with patients to encourage team-work and participation, motivating them to learn new skills which are known to have soothing and relaxation benefits."

Graham, 53, from Sheffield, has suffered psychosis for the last 20 years. He said programs like this help people to express themselves.

"For too long there's been a medical approach to mental illness. That's why Reach4Dance is so important, because it moves away from that medical model."

"You have to find a way of expressing yourself. You tend to feel you're on your own.

"People with mental illness tend not to express themselves due to a fear that what they do or say might be misunderstood."

He said a similar program in Sheffield helped participants to feel they had done something of worth.

"It allowed them to feel important," he said.

Schizophrenia is one of the most severe and debilitating mental illness, which affects approximately one in every hundred people in the UK.

It is characterised by hallucinations, delusions, thought disorder, depression and social withdrawal and can strike any one of us, at any time.

We expect these workshops to be hugely beneficial to this patient population who can be isolated from these kinds of activities
Ray Rowden, Reach4Dance specialist adviser
Music therapy and arts and crafts therapy are known to be particularly beneficial for patients. These workshops aim to combine both.

Reach4Dance specialist adviser Ray Rowden said: "Reach4Dance offers people with a mental illness a creative outlet which allows them to express and manage overwhelming feelings or thoughts.

"Music therapy can increase self-esteem and personal autonomy and the psychotherapeutic use of movement can help those who may find some feelings or experiences too overwhelming or difficult to communicate by words alone.

"We expect these workshops to be hugely beneficial to patients, who can be isolated from these kinds of activities, and also their families who often share the burden of the illness."

The mental health charity SANE has welcomed the initiative.

SANE chief executive Marjorie Wallace said: "Living with enduring mental health problems can often be a lonely and bleak experience so the opportunity of dancing and finding creative release could bring new energy and hope."

Reach4Dance is also running similar workshops in children's disabled units, local hospitals and nursing homes.

The project has been sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills and pharmaceuticals company Janssen-Cilag Ltd.

The funding will enable the project to continue until July 2005.

However, organisers hope they will secure future funding.

"If we can prove its value to the hospitals and dancers, we hope to raise more money to carry on," said Mr Rowden.

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