Here’s How to Make Music Festivals Safer for Everyone

We went to Secret Garden Party to explore the innovative ways they are tackling drug use, mental health and sexual assault.

When I meet Adam Waugh, trustee and coordinator of Psycare, the main provider of welfare and harm reduction services at this year’s Secret Garden Party festival, we embrace – he has one of the most overwhelming ‘kind bloke’ auras I’ve ever encountered. With sleepy eyes, he recounts spending four hours that morning in an ambulance outside A&E with someone experiencing a psychotic episode during an LSD trip. It’s midday Sunday: he’s been here since Tuesday, working day and night, and he’ll be here until the following Tuesday. It’s also sunburn weather. I think to myself: How is this strange man still smiling?

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It’s a thought I revisit throughout the day. Psycare have over 80 trained volunteers onsite across a number of specialised areas, including a tent for victims of sexual assault. They are part of a multifaceted welfare package that the organisers of Secret Garden Party hope will set a new gold standard when it comes to the safety of its glitter-bashed sesh aficionados. I’m here to find out how it all works, why it’s necessary in a crisis-racked society, and whether more festivals need to start putting punters before profits.

“My view is that, a lot of the time, the problems we see start before the festival,” Waugh tells me outside a portakabin in the backstage area, as it shakes with the bass from music nearby. “People are struggling generally at the moment and someone could be having a difficult time at home. Then the festival happens and they don’t get enough sleep or water, and maybe they take drugs – combine that with the high stimulus environment and it can lead to a crisis.”

Waugh says a serious case like the one he saw this morning is comparatively rare; a “handful” over the course of the four-day, 20,000 person festival. Nevertheless, the duty of care of Psycare to individuals seems vast; one person, he says, stayed with them for over 24 hours this weekend. He tells me that the excellent level of provision at this year’s Secret Garden Party – twinned with the desperate current state of NHS’s mental health services – inspired a local authority member to comment that someone would be better off having a mental health crisis onsite rather than off.

Psycare trustee and coordinator, Adam Waugh.

The most common cases of punters entering one of Psycare’s eight tents are ketamine casualties, anxiety attacks, or people who just need to sleep off their drugs. “We’re also seeing increasing numbers of festival goers who take mental health meds, but stop taking them before the event so they can do drugs. Or they forget while they’re here,” says Waugh. For clarity: stopping your meds to take MDMA at a festival is A Very Bad Idea.

Unique among options onsite for festival goers is an area specifically for victims of sexual harassment or assault. A 2018 YouGov poll found that 43 percent of women under 40 had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour at a UK festival, but that only 7 percent had reported it to the festival staff.

Secret Garden Party posters on welfare and sexual harassment.

A ‘Safer Spaces’ campaign was relaunched by the Association Of Independent Festivals this year, and much of the Secret Garden Party's messaging was focused around onsite harassment. “I think it was really clear this year that you can come forward and be supported,” says Maddie Harris, events manager at SGP, revealing that many had come to speak about past experiences. “We’re getting a lot of people coming forward and being really grateful to have the space to discuss things they’ve never talked about.”

These kinds of first interactions are a crucial part of The Loop’s agenda too. The drugs safety NGO trialled the country’s first ever legal drug checking service at Secret Garden Party in 2016 and they are back this year – though they are only testing back-of-house, which means they are analysing seized drugs or stuff dropped in amnesty bins.

The Loop’s volunteers manning their drop-in tent.

They also have a jolly team of volunteers – packed with psychiatrists, nurses and academics – dishing out harm reduction advice next to Psycare. I head to their professional backstage lab, where chemists scrutinise pills and powders under UV lights as drum and bass plays on a phone speaker. The founder, Fiona Measham, tells me that, six years ago, it felt like a miracle that they were even granted permission to do their work. “People could bring their drugs, get them tested, and get results directly… at Secret Garden Party. [Previously] that seemed impossible.”

Since then, she says, they’ve been focusing on building up an evidence base in support of their service. “We can now say with some confidence that if we can identify that a substance isn’t what someone expected, then over half and, perhaps as many as two-thirds, won’t take that substance. So we reduce drug use.”

The Loop’s senior chemist, Guy Jones.

Despite this, she says, “I had an email this morning from a festival promoter saying that The Loop’s drug checking condones drug use, encourages it and is more likely to increase drug problems.” Measham doesn’t reveal the festival behind the comment, but goes on to say: “It’s frustrating, because if we had that conversation directly they could see we aren’t condoning or encouraging drug use.”

I emailed Festival Republic – who run large scale events like Reading and Leeds and have not used The Loop – and their parent company Live Nation with regards to this story, but received no replies. The difference in approach between them and an organisation like the Association Of Independent Festivals is stark. Their CEO Paul Reed says, “We’ve been fully supportive of The Loop since 2015. It isn’t about legitimising drug use.”

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Reed says, “There’s a huge renewed focus on audience welfare across the industry,” but events are financially stretched post-pandemic. “For a lot of independent festivals, the [profit] margin is less than 10 percent – that’s an average year, and this is far from an average year. We’ve got a 25 percent to 35 percent increase in infrastructure costs. The supply chain is in disarray.”

A friendly reception inside Psycare’s main welfare tent.

Secret Garden Party also host My Black Dog – a peer-to-peer mental health service – and the Bristol-based neurodiversity charity Diverse onsite. “I have had back-to-back conversations all day with people saying it [the festival] was just too much for them,” says the My Black Dog’s founder, Nicola Clarke, “what came through was a sense of loneliness, of isolation.” Diverse have a calm sensory space aimed at people with autism, ADHD or Aspergers, and their volunteer, Natalie, tells me that “people [with these conditions] do want to get back out there and something like this can be the thing that tips them over into buying a ticket.”

Of course, it’s all very well having thoughtfully crafted welfare options, but they are still only being used by a relatively small number of punters – unlike the toilets, which were the subject of much social media ire following Secret Garden Party.

“It is true, there were some very poor toilet situations at times over the weekend and teams did what they could to alleviate the situation,” said a spokesperson for the festival. “Last minute issues with delivery of some service supplies like portaloos and waste vehicles were at the heart of this. This is no excuse, but it is a reason, and we apologise unreservedly to all SGP attendees for such an unhealthy state of affairs.”

There were also reports of an assault on Friday night. “This was a minor incident, no one was seriously hurt and the two concerned were taken to the medical tent for treatment,” said a spokesperson. “The matter is now with the police so we are unable to comment further at this stage.”

After spending the day chasing the various welfare teams around, I ache and I’m happy to scuttle home before the evening’s lunacy begins for the final time. I go back to Psycare to say goodbye to Waugh and he’s nowhere to be seen. “He’s out helping someone,” I’m told. “We’re not sure when he’ll be back.”

@dhillierwrites

Tagged:

Drugs, sexual assault, welfare, Secret Garden Party, mental health

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