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Reach for the sky: How a unique arts event is helping improve our mental health


An arts festival that aims to transform our way of thinking is coming to QUT Gardens Point Theatre this week, by directly confronting mental health and suicide in the community.

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The Big Reach offers unique experiences from around the country exploring how arts-based experiences can help us work through trauma, anxiety and stress, creating connections with those around us.

University of New South Wales Professor Jill Bennett oversaw the first two award winning events in Sydney in 2017 and 2019, and says this festival is well-timed so soon after the traumatic floods that have swept Queensland’s south-east in recent months.

“The festival, which we founded in Sydney, was really an attempt to sort of fill that gap between arts and mental health support,” Bennett said.

“I have a research lab that brings together media artists, predominantly, and people with lived experience and mental health and trauma experts.

“We worked with a group of survivors of institutional trauma in the first festival. And then in the second festival, we did a great collaboration with young career traditional healers in the central desert and also with young suicide survivors.

“And so through these projects, if you’re able to take them slowly enough and do all the research and development around them, they’re often really great outcomes.

“Now that we’ve done several iterations of the festival and we’re moving around the country…we’ve just done a smaller scale festival in Warwick, which was also fantastic.”

She said she aims to bridge the gap between the arts and mental health challenges through The Big Reach.

“There are many people interested in that crossover. But in terms of the institutional frameworks, arts and mental health are quite separate,” she said.

“And so we wanted to create an umbrella for really bringing people and projects together and really kind of testing and iteratively developing things in community settings.”

This event starts with the half day workshop What I Now Know That Can Change the World, on Wednesday 25 May focusing on the insights of older Australians, and ends with a free public highlights event on Saturday May 28.

The program features immersive work from a range of artists such as Girrimay nurse and award winning North Queensland artist Marianne Wobke, Uti Kulintjaku from the APY Lands in South Australia, performers Hiromi Tango and Karen Lee Roberts and interactive media artists using virtual reality for suicide prevention.

Professor Bennett says it will attract a diverse audience of creative thinkers, artists, designers, mental health workers, right through to people with lived experience, researchers and activists.

“Often when you say mental health and art, people assume it’s just the easy stuff, a little bit of visiting a gallery to make yourself feel better,” she said.

“But no. The first step is actually opening up a space where people’s feelings can be acknowledged, their stories can be heard in a supportive context.

“And then the arts are where we have all of those communication tools for talking about and working through difficult emotions and experiences, the kind of stuff that actually in everyday settings and the workplace, we don’t really make space for because it’s uncomfortable, difficult.

“We tend to have to override those difficult intrusive feelings. And this really creates a space for doing that work. But it doesn’t have to be completely medicalised. It’s about support and general wellbeing.”

Gold Coast community and cultural development artist Nathan Stoneham will curate Awkward Conversations, led by artists with lived experience, in experiential formats around hard-to-talk-about subjects that relate to mental health.

Queensland Mental Health Commissioner Ivan Frkovic said the arts unlocks the creative potential of our minds and opens up new avenues of being.

“The arts help us understand the world around us and are fundamental to human expression, wellbeing and recovery from mental illness,” he said.


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