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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Case study:

The Big Anxiety

The Big Anxiety

The Big Anxiety is an arts festival exploring mental health founded by the University of New South Wales, in association with the Black Dog Institute, and now RMIT. Professor Jill Bennett, its Founding Director, believes that the arts are ‘the best means we have for developing rich and empowering ways to communicate and share complex experience’. Accordingly, every exhibit at the festival, whether it be a hi‑tech interactive environment or a one‑on‑one dialogue, is intended to encourage conversation about the trauma, anxieties and stresses of everyday life, and to involve people from all parts of the community to support collective mental health.

Professor Bennett explained the festival combines three elements: people, arts and science.

People and communities are the key to understanding experience; the arts provide the means to connect; and the science ensures an evidence‑based approach to the work of the festival.

Lived experience is critical to the festival. As Professor Bennett puts it, ‘the art is generated from lived experience.’ Exhibits are developed from community projects that offer high‑level creative and technical support for people with lived experience to address issues central to them. The festival also nominates ambassadors, who Professor Bennett says are ‘just ordinary people with some kind of lived experience’.

Professor Bennett notes The Big Anxiety is not just about what is being exhibited; it is about the nature of the engagement.

We knew from the start that the purpose had to be to create enriching experiences for people with their own lived experience. We want the work to have direct mental health benefit. That might be in terms of promoting understanding, agency and self‑reflection, and in some cases, participating is directly linked to recovery.

Using the arts as a mechanism to emphasise mental wellbeing for everyone led to the theme of the 2019 festival: cultivating empathy. Professor Bennett says that empathy is critical to enabling people to ‘care and support for others and to defeat stigma’. Exhibits were designed to encourage people to reflect and to build their skills in listening to different voices. In the festival’s ‘Empathy Clinic’, exhibits presented first‑person perspectives on lived experience, to challenge assumptions and to test how sharing perspectives can change people’s views.

One of the exhibits, ‘Awkward Conversations’, was based on the simple idea of one‑to‑one conversation in a supportive environment. Participants booked a conversation with a person who has some kind of lived experience with mental health challenges or disability. Professor Bennett notes the resulting dialogues were often ‘quite subtle but high impact discussions’. Another exhibit, ‘Listen up’, was a meditative ‘soundscape’ where visitors could listen to stories from Aboriginal people of trauma, violence and abuse in a supportive setting.

Professor Bennett says the real measure of the festival’s success is not just the people who attend, but the quality of engagement people feel that they have experienced. Honor Eastly, one of the Festival Ambassadors explained how the festival contributes to broader wellbeing.

The Big Anxiety is a unique opportunity to think about mental health not as a health issue, but a philosophical and cultural question. It asks of us: how do we live good lives in the modern world?

The Big Anxiety includes projects that bring people together using arts to process difficult life experiences. Jenny McNally, a survivor of institutional abuse, collaborated on an immersive film shown at the festival and spoke about how her involvement in the festival contributed to her recovery.

I’ve always had trouble dealing with my journey, my journey’s been very hard.

I think that’s the most amazing thing, was that I was believed. I’ve never been believed in my life. And to then go to the university and bring my children in, and to have my first born son … to sit there and say ‘Mum, this is stunning and now I understand your story, I understand who you are.’ It gave me back my own reality. You know, I didn’t have to pretend anymore.

Andrijana Miller, a festival volunteer with lived experience of trauma, said the festival does bring in people who would not necessarily seek help, because art is seen as ‘safe’.

This festival for me creates a very safe space for something that is very unsafe or creates a very unsafe experience, like a trauma or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or anxiety.

The Big Anxiety will take place again in Melbourne in 2022, where it will explore the theme ‘reimagining mental health’.

Source: RCVMHS, Interview with Jill Bennett, July 2020; The Big Anxiety [accessed 22 July 2020]; The Big Anxiety 2019 Podcast Series; The Big Anxiety 2017 Festival Summary; The Big Anxiety 2019 Report; YouTube, Jenny McNally Interview, Parramatta 2017, The Big Anxiety, [accessed 5 November 2020]; YouTube, The Big Anxiety 2019 – Festival Highlights, The Big Anxiety, [accessed 5 November 2020].

Photo credit: Jessica Maurer