The Big Anxiety Festival transforms approaches to mental health

The biggest mental health and arts festival in the world, The Big Anxiety Festival, will explore and re-imagine the state of mental health in the 21st century.


Hosted by UNSW Sydney and the Black Dog Institute, the biggest mental health and arts festival in the world will explore and re-imagine the state of mental health in the 21st century.

Leading national and international artists, scientists, technology experts and thinkers will assemble across Greater Sydney for The Big Anxiety Festival from 20 September to 11 November.

Tackling the big anxieties of our times, as well as the stresses and strains of everyday life, The Big Anxiety Festival presents over 60 events across Sydney with hubs located at Customs House, Riverside Theatres Parramatta, and UNSW's Paddington campus.

Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia. On average, 1 in 4 people – 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men – will experience anxiety. ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing 2007

The Big Anxiety Festival is set to transform the ways people think about and deal with mental health via innovative experiences that include state-of-the-art immersive environments including the world’s highest resolution 3D cinema, international art exhibitions, theatre and performance, contemporary dance, interactive media events and public forums for the entire family.

The Big Anxiety Festival's vision is to create opportunities for meaningful encounters that increase curiosity and empathy, decrease stigma, support neurodiversity and promote psychological and emotional well-being in our society.

The inaugural Big Anxiety Festival revolves around five major themes:

  • Awkward Conversations explores the way we communicate, especially when it comes to discussing difficult subjects like suicide and anxiety
  • Lived Experiences examines the nitty gritty of life like trauma, loss, recovery and hope through the lens of creativity and vulnerability
  • NeurodiverseCity celebrates diversity of the mind by asking why difference prompts anxiety and stigma
  • Power, Politics and Institutions investigates the increasing struggle to maintain mental health in our fast-paced, hyper-connected society, and the hand that institutions play in perpetuating illness
  • Mood Experiments uncovers the way our environment can drastically influence the way we experience the world.

Executive & Artistic Director of the Festival, Professor Jill Bennett from UNSW Art & Design says: “There is resounding evidence that the arts can contribute to our mental well-being in really substantial ways, far beyond simply promoting awareness.  We want to transform the way people think, feel and connect”.

Uniquely for an arts festival, The Big Anxiety Festival will contribute to real-life mental health research, with researchers at Black Dog Institute measuring the social and health benefits for participants. “The research underpinnings make this event a world-first, establishing an evidence-base for the impact of communities engaging together around mental health issues," says Professor Katherine Boydell, the festival’s Mental Health Lead from Black Dog Institute.

There is resounding evidence that the arts can contribute to our mental wellbeing in really substantial ways, far beyond simply promoting awareness. We want to transform the way people think, feel and connect.

To kick-start the announcement of NSW’s first The Big Anxiety Festival, the state’s Minister for Mental Health Tanya Davies has sponsored a design competition to build relaxation ‘pods’ which will be exhibited at festival hubs.

The entries, developed by school students in collaboration with specialist architects, include state-of-the-art designs with a focus on good mental health. Two winning entries will be selected for building.

Minister Davies said: “The inaugural festival will bring innovative experiences to help people think about their mental health and the mental health of those around them.

“The NSW Government is delighted to support the festival which will primarily run during Mental Health Month this October.”

Bridging Hope Charity Foundation Director Stephen Fitzpatrick said: “Bridging Hope Charity Foundation supports the twin pillars of arts and mental health in our communities. We are very proud to be the Principal Supporter of this very worthwhile event, with the aims of the Festival that mirror the vision of our Foundation - Bridging the arts and mental health for improved well-being.”

The Big Anxiety Festival will be represented to the wider community by a number of Ambassadors:

  • Bè Aadam – mental health researcher and advocate
  • Abdul Abdullah – acclaimed visual artist engaged in the young Muslim experience
  • Mitch Jones – punk rock daredevil known as “Australia’s Harry Houdini”
  • Debra Keenahan – artist and psychologist focusing on dignity in disability
  • Vicki Van Hout – Indigenous dancer, choreographer and Big Anxiety Festival poet
  • Alessandro Donagh-De Marchi – advocate for suicide prevention and men’s health
  • Yarrie Bangura – designer and public speaker informed by her Sierra Leone refugee experience

Find the Big Anxiety Festival‘s full program here.The majority of events in The Festival are free, relaxed and wheelchair accessible. Selected events will also be Auslan interpreted, audio described, and with tactile tours.

The Big Anxiety Festival will be launched on Wednesday 20 September with an event for the media during the day and a large launch event at 6pm. Those wishing to attend the 6 pm launch should register their interest at

The Big Anxiety Festival is an initiative of the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney) in association with the Black Dog Institute and over 25 partners across Greater Sydney. The principal Festival partner is The Bridging Hope Charity Foundation. Major partners and supporters include Australian Government, Department of Communication and the Arts: Catalyst - Arts and Culture Fund; The Neilson Foundation; Australia Council for the Arts; City Of Sydney; Mental Health Commission of NSW and the NSW Government.

Additional background information, images, biographies can be accessed here.