With Glastonbury already been and gone, and Camp Bestival on the horizon, summer 2019's festival season is well and truly upon us. If it's been a tough first half of the year, losing yourself in the music and partying with your mates for a weekend can provide the ultimate escape – but the chaotic nature of festivals, and the abundance of alcohol and drugs, could also bring up some trickier feelings and send your mental health spiralling.
Struggling with your mental health at a festival can feel bewildering and isolating – especially if the thousands of people around you all seem to be having the time of their lives. But you should be able to find mental health support at most of the UK's major music festivals, to help you take a step back from the noise and talk things through over a soothing cup of tea.
Community interest company Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England works with St John Ambulance to deliver training in mental health first aid across the country, with nearly half a million people trained in MHFA England skills so far. Chief Executive Simon Blake OBE tells me they're working towards a future where all events have first aiders equipped to tackle both mental and physical health issues.
Why festivals might be triggering
"Festivals can be intense experiences, with large crowds and lots of noise. They can be stressful environments, and this sensory overload can trigger anxiety and panic attacks for some people," Blake explains. "Poor diet and a lack of sleep are a fairly common part of many people's festival experience too. We know that both are key to supporting good mental health, so when they get neglected over the course of a festival this can also impact our wellbeing," he adds.
Equally, if you've been struggling with mental health problems anyway, or you're stressed about personal issues that you thought you'd left at home for the weekend, the intensity and disruption to your normal routine could bring those feelings bubbling to the surface – no matter how hard you try to ignore them.
What kind of support might be on offer?
"A Mental Health First Aider is trained to be able to spot signs and symptoms of common mental issues, listen nonjudgmentally, hold supportive conversations and signpost someone to further support," he explains. "This could involve assisting someone who is having a panic attack, or having a supportive conversation with someone who might be showing signs and symptoms of depression or anxiety."
Crucially, he adds, Mental Health First Aiders aren't trained to be therapists or counsellors, but they can offer initial support through listening skills and guidance – in the same way that a physical first aider can bandage up your sprained ankle after some overexuberant dancing, but can't fix a broken leg if your attempt at crowd surfing goes badly wrong.
How to access mental health support
The exact mental health support available will differ from festival to festival but look out for dedicated welfare tents or chill-out zones, where stressed-out music fans can take a moment away from the intensity of the crowd, relax and have a conversation about how they're feeling. If you're worried that mental health issues might come up for you, it's a good idea to scout these out once you arrive, as soon as you've pitched your tent, so you know where to head if things get too much.
The Samaritans has volunteers providing mental health support at between 18-20 festivals every year, while other festivals provide their own onsite mental health support. Boomtown, for example, has a 24-hour mental health response team, while Download Festival runs free daily mindfulness sessions.
Challenges in accessing support
If there aren't dedicated quiet spaces available, this can be a particular challenge both for Mental Health First Aiders and the person who's struggling. "Mental Health First Aid support is best offered in a quiet space, so the density of crowds and the noise of festival environments can make this challenging – particularly if people are intoxicated," Blake says. "It is really important for Mental Health First Aiders to be aware of the exits and where to find quiet areas or breakout spaces."
While many festivals do provide these dedicated spaces, MHFA England would like to see it become as universal as that greasy burger van that crops up at every major event. "It's really important for festivals to take provision of mental health support seriously – the onus for seeking this support at a festival, or in any environment, should not be on the person who is struggling," Blake adds. "We want to see a future where mental health support is readily available and offered to anyone experiencing mental ill health at events and festivals."
How to take care of your mental health at festivals
Besides knowing where to access help if you need it, there are also simple self-care techniques you can use to look after your mental health throughout festival season. "It's always a good idea to be with someone you trust, who's able to support you if you do struggle with your mental health while at a festival," Blake says, "and it's worth being aware of where the toilets, exits and water points are, as well as support services."
Looking after your overall wellbeing will help too, so make the most of gaps between your favourite bands to take a cheeky power nap, get some food in you to keep your sugar levels up, and rehydrate (with water, not beer). And remember that alcohol not only dehydrates you but is also a depressant and can leave you feeling low during or after your drinking sesh. Boring but true, sorry.
What to do if things spiral out of control
If your mental health gets really bad at a festival and you feel like things are spiralling out of control, get yourself to a support service as quickly as possible – whether that's a Samaritans tent, St John Ambulance crew or an onsite medical or welfare tent. They can signpost you to helplines or local support services, and if necessary call an ambulance or crisis team to provide the more specialist support you need.
In an emergency, if you can't get to these services on site or you feel like you're in immediate danger, dial 999 or call the Samaritans on their free 24/7 helpline: 116 123