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Danielle Caruana refers to it as her ‘lightbulb moment’. Outwardly, the attractive 30-something appeared to have a blessed life. Married to popular blues and roots singer John Butler, mother to two healthy young children and an idyllic home in Perth’s portside suburb of Fremantle. Why, then, was she feeling so desperately anxious and so deeply unhappy?
The youngest of six children, Caruana was born into a musical Maltese immigrant family in the western suburbs of Melbourne. An inherently talented singer-songwriter herself, Caruana kept her gifts hidden, instead supporting her older brother Nicky Bomba as he developed his singing career by managing his record label, then joining the management team for Butler, an increasingly successful touring artist whom she married in 1999. She continued to harbour a burning need to perform herself, but with no female role models she simply pushed the feelings aside.
Then it happened. “It wasn’t until the birth of my second child [Jahli,now 11]. I was struggling with the touring schedule of my husband and how isolated I felt as a parent and where my own creative expression lived within all that. I was having a conversation with my daughter Banjo, who asked why I didn’t share my songs the way Dad did. My reaction was internally so violent, and I said: ‘Because I’m so busy being your mother.’ And I raced out of the room. I realised that was the internal narrative that was creating a lot of the unwellness and frustration in me, and I made a simple pact I was going to start doing something. And it wasn’t going to look like what John was doing and I wasn’t going to tour as much as John was touring.”
Adopting the stage moniker Mama Kin, Caruana began singing publicly, performing songs that exposed her most vulnerable self. She was astonished by the audience feedback. “The response was immediate and I was overwhelmed by it all. [My music was] about expressing myjourney of being so broken, songs I never thought I would perform, but the songs I thought were the most private were the ones people would say: ‘I felt like you were writing that from the corner of my most secret self.’ I realised how shared our experiences of isolation are.”
It was the knowledge of people’s need to share and the powerful roleart can play in both healing and bringing people together that led to Professor Jill Bennett running The Big Anxiety festival in Sydney late last year. The founding professor of the National Institute of Experimental Arts at the University of New South Wales, Bennett has grown up with experiences of mental health issues and was convinced there was a gap that an arts, science and mental health festival could fill.
If she needed convincing, it came on a freezing winter’s night in 2016. Bennett and UNSW were hosting a Vivid Ideas event at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art as a precursor to The Big Anxiety, exploring the role creativity and art might play in helping alleviate anxiety.
“It was a sell-out, but it was in the middle of a massive storm, so we thought no-one was going to come. Yet the room was full,” she recalls. Participants were asked to anonymously respond, using mobile devices, to a series of questions about their experiences with anxiety and depression. “There were massive responses on anxiety and fairly big responses to depression. And the audience was a super-cool, young Vivid crowd. That was the thing that tipped me, because we realised there was a huge interest, and it’s really timely.”
The statistics are sobering. According to Lifeline, suicide remains the leading cause of death in Australians aged 15 to 44, while Beyond Blue says more than two million people suffer anxiety in any given year. Yet the vast majority don’t seek help. “Every one of those deaths is theoretically preventable in the way cancer isn’t, so that suggests we don’t take care of mental health, and that’s a driver for change. The one thing it does tell us is that we need richer communication and richer engagement,” Bennett says.
Enter The Big Anxiety. The event comprised more than 75 events across the city featuring international and Australian artists, scientists and people with lived experience of mental health issues in a varied, interactive, entertaining and provocative seven-week festival where people can share their experiences, learn about others’ and get a sense of the healing power of art.
The free program ranged from panel discussions with visual artists Patricia Piccinini and Brenda Croft, performer Shaun Parker and actor David Woods to a converted ambulance with interactive artworks controlled by participants’ stress, breathing and heart rates; Awkward Conversations with participants that included an artist with dwarfism and a young man who has made repeated suicide attempts, answering any and every question put to them; and a video installation that places viewers inside the experience of stage fright.
The response was overwhelmingly positive with more than 140,000 attendees, many of them under 25, while broad local and international media coverage resulted in interest in taking the festival abroad. “There is general interest in health and wellbeing and how that can be achieved using technology and the arts,” says Bennett, who hopes the local festival will be biennial.
Driving the festival was evidence of the impact art and creativity can have on alleviating and even helping prevent mental health issues and improving health and wellbeing, where art isn’t confined to paintings on a gallery wall. While Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch represent the stereotypical and oft-maligned ‘mad artist’, there is no denying artists have the ability to express deep-seated mental distress and pain, often in subtle ways. “Part of what I wanted to do was value the rich benefit of creativity. Artists do generate insights and can share that with the broader community,” she says, pointing out that leading organisations such as Apple and Google now put a premium on ‘creativity’. “They appoint creatives or people with an art background, because we do value that spark of creativity and different ways of working, but we’re only at the start of the journey when it comes to [how that can benefit] health.
Caruana knows well the healing power of art. Unfortunately, the ARIA-nominated artist’s discovery of the balm of performing wasn’t the end of her experiences with anxiety and depression, two ongoing conditions she has had to learn to manage through a strict regimen of transcendental meditation, regular counselling and a healthy lifestyle. Recently she learnt about a powerful hormone, oxytocin, which is naturally stimulated by communal singing.
“To stand in a gig with hundreds of bodies up against each other and to experience waves of sound – that’s spiritual!” she enthuses. Collaborating with friend Tommy Spender, Mama Kin Spender is a new project that sees the pair travel into communities and perform with a local choir. “I wanted things to be deeper than the touring schedule, where you’re just on stage for 20 minutes. I needed the effect for me and that town to be deeper.” The results speak for themselves. “We get these letters, expressions of connection, or of having felt disconnected, but now feeling so connected,” she says. “The effect is instant and joyous.”
In the past six months there has been heightened recognition of the dual-edged sword that is being creative – the tendency artists have towards mental health issues given the nature of their work, with irregular hours, performance anxiety, unreliable income and the vulnerability of displaying for public scrutiny your deepest self – while acknowledging the powerful role art plays in creating a more empathetic, balanced society.
In November, actor Deborah Mailman fronted the Performing Arts Wellbeing Summit at the Sydney Opera House, exploring the specific mental health needs of performance artists; actors Claudia Karvan and Gareth Davies and musician Tim Rogers hosted a panel on performance anxiety in Sydney that same month; while Bridging Hope, a charity foundation that seeks to bridge the arts and mental health for improved wellbeing, is now a major supporter of the 2018 Biennale of Sydney.
Governments and the corporate world are also exploring the role artcan play in a healthier workforce. The Big Anxiety festival was funded by the Australian government, the Black Dog Institute, the Mental Health Commission of New South Wales and the Neilson Foundation, among others, while accounting giant KPMG recently hosted a lunch for high net-worth individuals with the theme ‘Art for health’s sake – the role of art and culture in developing wellbeing’ as part of the company’s ongoing focus on mental health.
“There is a general interest in health and wellbeing and how that can be achieved using technology and the arts,” says Bennett. “Life has never been so frenetic, and the whole thing about multi-tasking, checking your social media feed while you’re doing other things …there’s constant time-splitting. And that’s why we’re coming back to valuing more meditative activities and ways of being creative and learning about ourselves. It’s about taking care of ourselves and slowing down. And that’s what art does.”
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis or suicide prevention support, please contact Lifeline.
This story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Vogue Australia.