Atawhai Festival: Wellbeing in the arts

“None of us traverse through life without setbacks." We talk to Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho during the Atawhai Festival about action around suicide, mental health & wellbeing in the performing arts.

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Atawhai (meaning to show kindness, caring) is a festival hosted by Te Pou Theatre that focusses for the entire month of October on using performance as a tool to educate around suicide, mental health and wellbeing. One of the key hearts and minds behind Atawhai Festival is Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho who is positioned across both the arts and the wellbeing landscapes. A producer, director and performer by training Borni says that he was propelled into the community wellbeing sector when he lost a number of friends to suicide.

“None of us traverse through life without setbacks. Most of us often shift either side of our equilibrium, and at times may even find ourselves on an extreme end of the wellbeing spectrum. We all have our lived experience and part of mine was to lose a number of friends to suicide in a short amount of time,” explains Borni. “I began wanting to look at the ideas of unification, I felt the communication was lacking, that the old tired societal reactions of ‘harden up’ were still hanging over everybody so I strove to look at how I could be a part of a tangible solution. I quickly realized that it's not about solving but about allowing the conversations to be open and ongoing. Normalising the conversations so that there is a sense of comfortability for both sides. Education and unification of industry support, I saw were two things that could help.”

Since then, Borni has reached out to the people and organisations that understand health and mental wellbeing seeking his own form of education in the field. Most notably, he has formed a long term collaborative relationship with Taimi Allan, the CEO of Changing Minds. Now, combining his craft with his mission, Borni considers himself “less as a leader and more as a guide. I have the networks, opportunity, experience, drive and now education so I happen to be one of the right people for this kaupapa and I choose to hold the space whilst I am the right person.

"If we don’t get to the root, the weed will just keep flourishing."

Atawhai Festival has been developed around four interrelated areas that Borni and those behind the Festival have identified as necessary changes to see positive movement on mental health. The first focuses on the essential need for education around suicide prevention. For Borni, this starts with identifying the underlying causes that lead to action. There needs to be a unified support network in place that is adequately funded. The building, developing and strengthening of this network is part of the long-reaching contributions of the Atawhai Festival.

“There are so many people who are doing amazing work individually and as organisations,” explains Borni, “but we all champion different areas. Building a collective framework, I believe, will allow there to be an anchor that can be placed so that we aren’t all flailing around on our own slogging it out. In turn we can educate each other (networking itself can lead to wider support systems) and see where we can address the underlying issues so we then can find the strongest avenues for educating the community at large and reach those areas that are at higher risk whilst still being able to look after the areas we champion.”

The second area that Atawhai focusses on is building awareness of the issues that affect our mental health and wellbeing. Taimi Allan of Changing Minds says that mental health and wellbeing is universally experienced and it takes a lot of hard work for anyone and everyone to reach a sustained place of good wellbeing. “Most of us understand now that mental health and wellbeing is not just about our brains,” explains Taimi, “there are enormous social, financial and environmental pressures that we all face that are difficult to address within a system that looks for a magic pill or therapy to “fix” it. Most of us have experienced some life circumstances that were traumatic in some way, either by event, or by our lack of resources to cope.”

Taimi emphasises the personal aspect of everyone’s own mental health journey. Health systems are essential, but they cannot fix the problem alone. The solutions lie within each of us. “Ultimately, we hold the key to our mental health in our own hands, and it is easy to blame an overstretched system for not fixing our problems but the system has few choices, and nobody gets well on pills and therapy alone – we need to be open in our vulnerability and authentic in our search for the pieces we need to find meaning.”

Again, we see the need for strong support networks to hold those who sit within that vulnerable space. Across all the performances, workshops and presentations over the month, Atawhai Festival focuses on providing networking opportunities as a way to build tangible support networks that encourage self-care for those engaged in the performing arts. With a strong belief that these conversations need to be happening all year round, some initiatives reach far beyond the scope of the festival itself such as the establishment of an inexpensive counselling service for artists.

Finally, sitting as an umbrella across these areas of change is the need to destigmatize mental health and addiction problems. Considering the fact that most of us will experience mental health and/or struggles with addiction at some point in our lives, it is essential that we change the dialogue around these issues and the social perception of people who are struggling, whatever the reason. Taimi describes that “the real problem lies with a society that is quick to judge others who show visible distress or experience reality differently and then act on that judgement. We want people to be open and honest about having these experiences, but more than that, when people are open and honest, we need to ensure that within our own small circles of influence we have the laws, processes, practices, guidelines and recommendations in place so that people will not experience discrimination.”

This is where the arts come in. Performing arts in particular have the power to transform the language that we use and the public perception of mental health. They can create space for audiences to connect with experiences that they may be trying to understand in their own lives. “The arts are a non-threatening mechanism to ask questions, and tell stories that demystify experiences, dispel myths and promote recovery,” says Taimi. Of central importance here is making sure that the shows that are being created aren’t reinforcing stereotypes or over-simplifying the experience leaving audience members bereft of hope. For this reason, Atawhai offers many workshops, resources and toolkits that can assist artists to contribute positively towards destimatisation of mental health through their work.

The Atawhai Festival runs until Saturday 28th October. Keep an eye on the Facebook page to see what events are coming up.

Changing Minds has developed free guidelines for performers around portrayals of mental health or addiction to ensure your production is decreasing stigma and discrimination, please email admin@changingminds.org.nz if you would like a copy.

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

10 Oct 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.

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