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Taking Part in Melbourne’s Big Anxiety Festival

Exploring mental health through art


In this article, I share some of my learnings from taking part in The Big Anxiety festival in Melbourne as part of an action research trip funded by Arts Council England.

For the past 20 years, I’ve been working at the intersection of arts and mental health, starting with my own experiences and subsequently those that I work alongside in participatory settings. In the autumn of 2022, I sidestepped the British winter, arriving into spring and summer in Melbourne, heading down under to undertake a period of action research into arts and mental health.

Discovering photography as a young person myself enabled me to express feelings visually when I lacked the verbal vocabulary and confidence to speak. At the onset of my mental health difficulties, I struggled to understand and express what was happening as I descended into chaotic thought patterns and behaviours. Photography has supported me to stay tethered to the world around me, to process life experiences and connect with others, both then and now.

My own experiences with arts and mental health have led me to work as a professional artist specialising in the Creative Health sector. No one week is the same as I deliver creative participatory projects with community groups, produce work for galleries, support other artists through my non-profit organisation Arts & Health Hub, and use my lived experience in advisory and consultancy roles.

Arts & Mental Health in Melbourne

In 2019 I was fortunate to work at The Big Anxiety festival in Sydney, Australia’s biggest mental health festival focusing on people, arts and science. This time around I was invited to work at the festival taking place across October 2022 in Melbourne. My trip included various activities from speaking on panel discussions to delivering workshops on suicide and grief and supporting artists to think about the complexity of working in arts and mental health.

Mental health has historically been a difficult topic to talk about. What’s inside us, as opposed to our physical health, can be hard to describe, hard for others to see and hard to understand. As part of the festival, I ran sessions alongside other artists with a range of lived experiences as part of a programme called Awkward Conversations. In these sessions, members of the public could book a 30-minute slot to ask questions about topics they would usually avoid or find too uncomfortable. In my sessions participants started by selecting a singular image from my archive (a selection of images were laid out on the table) which we then built a conversation around. At points in our chat, they would add images to the narrative. Our conversation, rich in a tapestry of questions and comments about individual lives, ended as a series of images that represented our journey together. Working with images made it easier for people to ask questions about otherwise avoided subjects.

I also participated in the festival’s event The Big Anxiety Forum - learning from lived experience, bringing together 2 days of talks and workshops that explored and celebrated the complexity of lived experience. In my own workshop, I screened an intimate film of mine, to bloom, that explores my own suicide attempt through the words of my mother, and my mother’s death through my words. Following the screening, I invited participants to write short stories about their own losses: deaths, job losses, or the loss of the option to have a child. People generously shared these stories with some participants returning the next morning for me to film their lips, as I had filmed my mother’s, recalling their words. It was a deeply powerful process for participants and myself to share and bear witness to each other’s stories.

During the Forum event, we also held a long-table discussion on suicide, designed to support anyone in the room to talk uncensored about their experiences. I was struck by how we censor an individual's experiences in spaces where any potential distress feels impossible to manage. People openly shared their stories not to seek solutions but to find acceptance and validation with like-minded peers. I was touched by the range of language that was used to describe distress, reminding me of the importance of recognising the diverse ways in which differing cultures express mental turmoil.

On my trip, I learnt a great deal about the cultural complexity of Australia, its painful and violent history of colonialism and the treatment of indigenous peoples. I left the event acknowledging that distress does have a place in our lives. It isn’t to say that we should invite it into our lives, but there is value in walking towards it, with all its learnings, instead of turning our backs on it and pretending it doesn’t exist. In recent weeks I’ve discussed the efficacy of trigger warnings, not only on pieces of art, but also on people’s experiences.

Care for Artists in Creative Health Sector

Alongside the privilege of being able to share in these rich and valued experiences, I was also reminded of the role and act of care for artists in this work. Whilst out in the Dandenong Ranges I delivered a workshop at Burrinja Cultural Centre for local artists on how to work on arts and mental health projects. Many of the provocations shared were around care - both individual and collective care. How can artists take care of themselves in this work, when so many of them come into the field because of their own lived experiences? What support is available to artists working with distressing content? How do artists know what support they need? There are a growing number of artists who have the drive and passion to do the work, but what infrastructure is in place to support their own wellbeing? I found that The Arts Wellbeing Collective (an initiative by Arts Centre Melbourne) has been doing interesting work around workplace mental health within the performing arts.

Some of these issues felt a little more developed in the cultural context of the UK which has more formalised ways in which artists can work within health settings, namely through social prescribing. Many people that I mentioned social prescribing to on my trip had not heard of it before. Whilst there are guidance documents for artists (such as the Good Practice Charter by Artists Union England), aspects of care and support are very much a hot topic right now. In 2022 the Culture, Health & Wellbeing Alliance’s report From Surviving to Thriving acknowledges that approximately 40% of artists working in arts and mental health come into this work through their own (or close family/friend’s) lived experiences. The Alliance is now developing a Creative Health Quality Framework.

My own organisation is delivering a 3-year project called the Support Hub across London, Manchester and nationally online, offering programmes of support for artists that work across the Creative Health sector. These include funding for clinical supervision for artists working in challenging environments and mental health support for artists with lived experience.

Awe

I decided to take my own work around care, space and rest seriously by adding time to my trip to travel around South East Australia and New Zealand, to fill up my awe tank. One of photography’s benefits for me is enabling me to document experiences of when I feel small and part of a much larger existence. For me, that is often being in expansive landscapes that allow me to put my worries into perspective. I like to walk for hours and document the beauty of nature, big or small, as it brings me closer to being present. Taking time out, whether it’s an hour for a walk or extended time off to process big life events has become really important for me to be able to sustainably do the work that I do.



 

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