Welcome to The Big Anxiety, 2022! Since our last full-scale festival in Sydney in 2019, the world has changed. The arts sector was decimated as a result of shutdowns, while the mental health system has struggled to deal with the fallout of COVID, as well as the devastating impact of bushfires, drought and floods in many regions.

The need for a creative and cultural approach to mental health has never been greater.

Mental ill-health and suicide in Australia directly cost the country between $43 and $70 billion in 2018-2019. These pre-COVID figures come from the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report (2020), which exposed critical gaps in the mental health system. Most notably, it found the system to be insufficiently people-focused; ill equipped to meet changing community needs, particularly in a time of crisis; and disproportionately focused on clinical services (thereby overlooking the importance of external, social factors).

The World Health Organisation suggests that up to 80% of people with mental health issues don’t seek help. In Australia, it is generally estimated that ~65% of those with mental health concerns do not seek help (far higher in less advantaged or marginalised populations); and recent research indicates that more than 50% of those who take their own lives have not reached out for help.

This is a communications and engagement challenge that requires innovative people-focused, design thinking — and solutions that go beyond the narrow realm of clinical practice or ‘awareness raising’. We need creative, trauma-informed ways to connect with people facing challenges — often linked to catastrophic events — within their communities. This means working together, combining insights and expertise from lived experience, arts, science, health and community practice. It also means privileging and learning from First Nations cultures, which have always understood the inexorable links between arts, culture and health.

We have learned a lot since founding The Big Anxiety in 2016 and negotiating the unfolding challenges since. In our Queensland program in the first half of 2022 we evolved the model of a two-day intensive forum, designed to replace the conference presentation format with an event designed as an EXPERIENCE. We see this as an important way to advance lived-experience-led programming, following the principles for action outlined on our ABOUT page. 

At Storey Hall in Melbourne we are presenting our second two-day forum at the heart of a program of events and exhibitions that includes an exciting range of artists and creative thinkers. The Naarm program has been developed with a wonderful set of partners ranging from JOLT to Yarra Ranges cultural venues to an amazing cross disciplinary team at RMIT.

We hope that you will join us in Naarm for what will be an exciting program, building on what we’ve learned over the past few years, and on the amazing partnerships we continue to build along the way. 

Jill Bennett, Founding Director & Co-Director, The Big Anxiety Naarm

Renata Kokanović, Co-Director, The Big Anxiety Naarm