The Big Anxiety Festival: The brainchild of university collaboration

SOURCE: solarseven / Shutterstock
The UNSW Big Anxiety Festival aims to question and re-imagine the state of mental health in the 21st century

By U2B Staff 

Read all stories

A 2017 national survey found 79 percent of university students in Australia report that feeling anxious has impacted their studies. Almost 70 percent rated their mental health as “poor” and 60 percent had feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.

The survey from mental health charity Headspace shows that student anxiety is at an all-time high and tertiary education is taking a psychological toll on Australia’s young people. It is not just the educational aspect that places pressure on students, the transition into university life, leaving home, and forging your own path was also a source of anxiety for many.

Universities have been aware of the problem for some time, dedicating resources to support services and ensuring students feel they have an avenue to find help when they need it.

student anxiety
A visitor experience Snoosphere, an interactive multi-sensory installation that encourages people to feel their way through a host of objects and surfaces, during the media launch of the Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney on September 20, 2017. Source: Saeed Khan / AFP

To break down the stigma attached to mental health further, the University of New South Wales is once again reviving its outreach mission in the form of The Big Anxiety Festival.

The event started on Friday and will run through until Nov 9. It focuses on far more than just student anxiety and aims to question and re-imagine the state of mental health in the 21st century, with the help of artists, scientists and communities.

Organised in partnership with the non-profit Black Dog Institute, it is the largest arts and mental health festival in the world. It brings together experts from across a range of fields to present more than 60 events across Sydney and spur uncomfortable conversations to throw open the doors on talking about mental health.

Using innovative tools like experiential virtual reality and the immersive Empathy Clinic, the experience helps participants appreciate what life is like for those suffering from mental health issues, and also embrace their own with love and understanding.


“We have tried to flip around the conventional approach to stigma, which is quite didactic and is about sharing information about why stigma is wrong. But the focus on empathy is really about cultivating the skills you need to avoid those stigmatising behaviours,” Professor Bennett, an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow leading the Felt Experience & Empathy Lab (fEEL) at UNSW, told the UNSW Newsroom.

“We want people to enhance their empathy skills by being more imaginative and more capable when it comes to sitting and listening and entering into the perceptual world of someone else, even though it may not be something you immediately want to do. We have played with this metaphor of a clinic where you come out better than you went in.”

The fEEL team have also teamed up with Aboriginal groups to address and educate people on some of the mental health issues felt by community members. The Uti Kulintjaku project was developed in partnership with the Ngangkari traditional healers and artists of the NPY Women’s Council and works to generate a conversation about “the underlying psychological forces that drive human behaviour” using virtual reality.

student anxiety
A visitor experience world’s highest resolution 3D immersive environment, Parragirls Past, Present offers a virtual experience of the former child welfare institution, the Parramatta Girls Home, on the media launch of the Big Anxiety Festival in Sydney on September 20, 2017. Source: Saeed Khan / AFP

The two end projects are designed by UNSW Art & Design’s Volker Kuchelmeister, a senior research fellow in fEEL at the National Institute of Experimental Arts.

“The virtual reality experience asks ‘what is it really like to be physically and mentally trapped in a space that you can’t escape from?’ In this case you can see through holes in the log and you can see people you love and people in your community, but you can no longer connect with them,” said Kuchelmeister

“It became a profound metaphor for incarceration, separation, addiction and that sense of powerlessness that many people experience.”