The Anxiety Festival

Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove which will be screened at the Anxiety Festival
Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove which will be screened at the Anxiety Festival
Honour Bayes is a freelance arts journalist who has written extensively for The Stage and had work published in the Guardian, Independent, Time Out, Exeunt Magazine and The Church Times. She is currently Associate Editor on Chinese arts magazine ArtZip and has worked as web editor for the Royal College of Art, managing its arts and design coverage.
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I want to write about The Anxiety Festival but am anxious I’m doing it too late. It’s been on for the whole of June and is now in the last week – what’s the point in writing about it now? Still it does say, ‘We are now into our final week, join us before we finish’ on its website, a gentle encouragement rather than the usual ‘catch it before it’s too late!’, so maybe I’m ok?

I’m not being facetious – as someone who suffers from anxiety I worry and fret about this sort of thing continually. I’m not alone; anxiety disorders are amongst the most common mental health problems in the world, affecting about one out of twenty adults in Britain.

This increase has been reflected in our cultural output for a while. As Anxiety Festival director Errol Francis writes, throughout the 20th there was a growing correlation between art and mental health:

There is a close relationship between mental disturbance, anxiety and modernism in the arts. The emergence of psychoanalysis at the turn of the 20th century had a profound impact on artists... This new insight into the psyche influenced artistic vision by focusing on the unique perception that comes from individual experience.

Run by the Mental Health Foundation the festival’s programme aims to explore this relationship into the 21st century. Utilising the visual arts, film, communities and performing arts it looks at how feeling anxious has become part of our contemporary condition. Its partners include arts organisations across the city with film screenings at the Barbican, performances at the Albany, symposiums at Dulwich Picture Gallery and multi-media exhibitions at The Foundling Museum, to name only four examples of many.

This is a subject that stretches across art forms and art venues. At the Royal College of Art’s graduation show – also in its final week – there have been a number of projects around issues of mental health. One in particular, Big Black Coat, has been designed to create a dialogue between young people in secondary schools and mental health issues. It’s a coat you put on and through multi-sensory experiences hopefully gain access and empathy into topics such as stress, depression and anxiety.

Ravi Thornton’s Hoax: My Lonely Heart attests that these complex topics are best covered through a multi-disciplinary lens. Using both performance and graphic novel media, Thornton’s piece about mental health has had amazing responses from audiences, both from sufferers finding resonance and outside eyes gaining fresh understanding.

The Philosophers' Mail meanwhile is a dose of calm wisdom in a tumultuous day. Set up by a team of philosophers, led by Alain de Botton, it aims to provide a counterpoint to The Daily Mail. It’s witty, insightful and always makes me feel better – another example of culture promoting healthy mental wellbeing.

As Francis says, the relationship between mental health and culture is nothing new, but it’s one that grows stronger every day. If you’ve got time it really would be worth dipping your toe into the programme at the Anxiety Festival. But if not, don’t worry, increasingly there'll be something else you can catch.

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