Founded in 2016 at UNSW with partners from the community, arts and health sectors, The Big Anxiety was staged across Greater Sydney in 2017 and 2019, attracting a total of 270,000 visitors. We established The Big Anxiety QLD in 2021 with an ongoing program spanning Warwick, Gold Coast and The Big Reach, Brisbane. The Big Anxiety Naarm/Melbourne was launched in 2022.

Breaking with the traditional model of a contemporary arts festival, which favours new and different themes for each iteration, The Big Anxiety fosters ‘slow build’, integrated programming, themes that continue to evolve from one festival to another, and continuity of research and practice, deepening relationships with artists and communities over time. Through this we have evolved a practice of ‘bottom up’ engagement, focusing on lived experiences of mental health, trauma and suicidality, and exploring the diverse ways in which art and design collaborations can provide valuable psychosocial support, while reframining experiences of trauma and distress in ways that normalise rather than pathologise.

Our mission is to reposition mental health as a collective, cultural responsibility, rather than simply a medical issue. In this we respond to the report of Australia’s Productivity Commission (2020) which highlights the need for a more people-centred approach to mental health, and for a move beyond the narrow focus of our current mental health system on purely clinical services.

Since 2016 we have built enduring partnerships with First Nations communities in the APY Lands as well as in regional towns, and have prioritised practices of listening that take seriously the need to design new frameworks of practice that attend to the power relations inherent in all institutional practice. Many of our practices and methods are documented in the book, The Big Anxiety: Taking Care of Mental Health in Times of Crisis (Bloomsbury, 2022).

From this ongoing community engagement we have devised the following set of principles for action to guide our practice.

We seek to:

  • Disrupt the traditional power balance between consumers and providers of mental health services, actively redesigning forums that create opportunities for action, amplifying the voices of people with lived experience.
  • Liberate service providers and consumers from frameworks which create binaried, homogenising identities, and enliven a transitional space where there are myriad opportunities for transformation and culture change.
  • Provide opportunities for people to connect meaningfully with art and experiential events that can potentially facilitate deepened understanding of the self and others, as well as enhancing psychosocial wellbeing.
  • Refuse to endorse or impose practices and frameworks that silence lived experience, operate with a ‘power over’ dynamic, or promote stigmatising views around mental health (including the idea that mental health can only be ‘treated’ by a ‘professional’)
  • Recognise and create space for dialogue with those who have been silenced, and on topics where silence is culturally encouraged (eg suicide, horror, loss…).
  • Acknowledge and celebrate the creativity, humour, insight, and resilience of people who experience mental distress.
  • Provide a balance of challengingness and care/support that enables people to absorb/open up to experiences through creative engagement/collaboration.
  • Bring people together in a transitional space where historical power and identity relations can be suspended, with the hope that this might lead to lasting shifts in distribution of power.
  • Advance genuinely ‘Trauma-informed Practice’ in a form that accounts for the political/collective aspects of mental distress, considers structural power imbalances, and conceptualises trauma as a psychosocial experience rather than an individual ‘disorder’.

The above set of principles for action was prepared by Rebecca Moran and Jill Bennett from discussions with consumers participating in our programs. It is intended as an evolving list to guide further engagement. We invite ongoing dialogue and input.


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