Art meets mental health in an immersive art project co-designed with people with lived experience of trauma from regional, rural and remote areas.

An augmented reality project exploring the relationship between wellbeing and place will provide insight into why some people in adverse circumstances don’t always access mental health services.

Hard place/Good place, led by UNSW Scientia Professor Jill Bennett as part of her Australian Research Council Laureate Fellowship, will develop an archive of experiential stories with people from regional, rural and remote areas, exploring what it means to be in a ‘hard place’ or a ‘good place’. 

The creative research project is coordinated by the Felt Experience & Empathy Lab [fEEL] at UNSW in partnership with Metro South Health (Brisbane) and Darling Downs Health. It is co-designed with people whose lives are affected by adversity, including the effects of climate change, drought, bushfire and flood and combines a 3D-immersive experience of a significant place with a personal narrative. 

“In our work, we’ve noticed that people often – while talking about being stuck in a really difficult place – also talk about a good place for them: what it is they value about that place, why it feels safe, why they go there to regroup,” Prof. Bennett says.

“So, part of the project is identifying those [good] places and amplifying them and talking through how one finds and makes a place that is safe and a space of growth and imagination.”

Evoking connection through augmented experience

Augmented reality superimposes a computer-generated image on the user’s view so that virtual objects appear as three-dimensional when viewed on a phone or tablet. As a mental health tool, it offers unique insights into first-person perspectives, Prof. Bennett says.

“[In Hard place/Good place] a space unfolds through a narrated personal story, and the viewer experiences this by moving around and encountering different parts of the scene,” she says. 

The project uses augmented reality to transform our understanding of the lived experience of trauma and distress, enabling a re-vision of intractable problems affecting this community, she says.

Bridging the disconnect

Suicide is the leading cause of death for people aged 15-44 in Australia, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. More than 50 per cent of people with mental illness do not access any treatment, according to research by the Black Dog Institute at UNSW, a frequent collaborator of fEEL. 

There are concerning rates of suicides in regional, rural and remote areas, including southern Queensland, and there is an underlying issue of engagement, Prof. Bennett says.

“There’s a disconnect,” she says. “Whether we’re talking about why people don’t seek help or why mental health services can’t reach these populations, that’s a problem of engagement.”

We need more imaginative ways to address mental health needs, especially in drought, bushfire and flood-affected areas, she says.

Sharing stories of lived experience

For these populations, it’s less about pathologies or disorders – people don’t necessarily identify as having mental health issues or use that discourse. They may be struggling with difficult physical and economic environments compounded by adverse events, such as bushfires, floods and droughts, which leads to anxiety, distress and despair, she says.

“Sharing stories in a supportive, trauma-informed environment, can be very beneficial, enhancing agency and capacity for psycho-social wellbeing.”

The arts offer “an understanding of experience, a way to express, to talk about, communicate experience, and then, by extension, a means to work through it, and potentially to inform ways to tailor support that meets people’s needs,” Prof. Bennett says. 

Adding diverse voices of lived experience to the medical frame of mental health is now a priority for the sector.

The project facilitates the telling of “stories for which there is often no shared language… We know that trauma is not easily verbalised. It’s overwhelming, and it’s experienced in the body in profoundly destabilising ways,” Prof. Bennett says. 

“So, telling a story is, in itself, therapeutic, provided it’s done in a supportive way.”

Moving beyond the metropolitan

For many, the decision to share their story is altruistically motivated; people often don’t want to be ‘helped’ but want to help others, Prof. Bennett says.

“The art-output then becomes a tool for communication, a tool for connection. And a tool for bringing communities together, [and] enabling possibilities for action,” she says. “The Hard place/Good place archive of stories will offer invaluable insights into the lives, needs and capacities of survivors of trauma and suicidality.”

Hard place/Good place is part of The Big Reach, a networking strategy to connect with communities. The initiative came out of The Big Anxiety Festival – a festival of people + art + science. Prof. Bennett launched the research-driven, mental health festival in 2017. 

The Big Reach commenced with a two-day forum in Brisbane in early February 2022, combining workshops and demonstrations of arts tools and techniques, before moving to the Gold Coast and the regional town of Warwick in March.

“Projects like Hard place/Good place and The Big Reach facilitate much-needed connections with people in regional, rural and remote areas who are needing help but not reaching out,” says Ben McKinnon, Assistant Director of Nursing at Metro South Addiction and Mental Health Service. 

“Using creative tools to engage people offers an alternative, less stigmatised, more autonomous pathway to help for people who struggle with sharing their experience." 

“It also gives health professionals an opportunity to explore alternative tools for helping people move past crisis. The fact that people aren’t comfortable with getting help, tells us that new ways to connect are desperately needed." 

The project is also being seeded across Australia, including in regional Victoria in the lead up to The Big Anxiety festival in October, in the APY Lands/Central Desert, and also in Rwanda, in partnership with Hamwe festival. Hard place/Good place will also be developed to explore the experiences of other populations dealing with dislocation or separation, such as international students.

A whole-of-community approach to building agency, connection and support

Prof. Bennett’s team has also co-designed immersive projects with people with a lived experience of suicidality, with Ngangkari healers in the Central Desert working on trauma, and with survivors of institutional abuse. The focus is always “enabling stories to surface in ways that are useful,” Prof. Bennett says. 

This kind of work represents a shift in mental health provision towards a whole-of-community proposition, prioritising lived experience.

Impact in this area means transforming possibilities for mental health strategies using a cultural approach to mental health, Prof. Bennett says.

Such work expands the western model of mental health through its recognition of creative practice as a mechanism for therapeutic change.

Video: Creating impact by designing immersive experiences

ARC Laureate & UNSW Scientia Professor Jill Bennett and her team co-design immersive art projects with individuals and communities with lived experience of trauma across regional, rural and remote Australia. Founder of the Big Anxiety Festival and the UNSW Big Anxiety Research Centre, Jill shares insights into the kinds of impact immersive art can have, and on the ways we think about mental health services, pointing to new ways of supporting people from the perspective of lived experience. The projects featured are Waumananyi (Man in the Log), led by Uti Kulintjaku (commissioned for The Big Anxiety, 2019), Parragirls Past, Present (The Big Anxiety, 2017) and EmbodiMap (fEEL) - visit fEEL Lab for details.

Images: Hard place/Good place is a creative research project examining lived experiences of being in a ‘hard place’ or a ‘good place’ using augmented reality. AR design by Volker Kuchelmeister, lead immersive media designer at UNSW fEEL. Images: fEEL and BARC. 

This article was originally published in 2022.

Written by Kay Harrison
Scientia Professor & Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow Jill Bennett
Scientia Professor & Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow