27 Feb 2019

Festival care: Who's looking after you

7:27 pm on 27 February 2019

This summer, thousands of people have trekked far and wide across the country to attend some of the many festivals on offer.

Outdoor music festival.

Photo: 123RF

They've gone for a good time and while most leave with good memories, for some the use of drugs may mar their experience.

The festival season this year has had a focus on drug safety and awareness as pill testing at large events became a widely-discussed issue.

Drug harm reduction group Know Your Stuff has been conducting pill testing at festivals - it sets up stalls at festivals where people can easily test their drugs and find out whether what they're planning taking is what it's purported to be.

It found the potentially fatal stimulant N-ethylpentylone in MDMA pills at five events.

But who's there to take care of people if they do end up having a bad experience?

Medical teams of course, but there's also volunteer group DeepSpace Festival Care.

DeepSpace offers "survival gear" for festivalgoers - electrolytes, sunscreen, condoms and earplugs. But it also provides a "confidential, non-judgmental safe space for guests feeling overwhelmed at festivals and events around NZ".

Demand for the group - founded in 2016 - has grown fast, founder and director Olivia Montgomery said.

DeepSpace was inspired by organisations like Australian "psychedelic first aid" group, DanceWize and US organisation Zendo, which works at events like Burning Man.

Ms Montgomery realised there was not an equivalent in New Zealand.

Deepspace Festival Care volunteers. The group provides "confidential, nonjudgmental safe space for guests feeling overwhelmed at festivals and events around NZ".

Photo: Deepspace / Supplied

"I had been to a lot of festivals … and realised there were a lot of people churning their jaws or freaking out or passed out unconscious and there wasn't a place for them. They would just be kicked out for being intoxicated rather that given compassionate care so they could come to and continue their festival experience and not feel embarrassed and get back to it safely."

DeepSpace went to its first festival, Aum, at the end of 2017, and has since worked at events like Bay Dreams and Soundsplash.

"Festival organisers just realise that it's a space that's really needed.

"It reduces the stress and anxiety that they have to deal with being organisers because there was a missing link in that area of care in festivals," Ms Montgomery said.

"You have security, you have medical, but you are missing that specialised care for the people that are going to be on substances, because you still can't really acknowledge that people are going to be on substances at festivals.

"In smaller communities there have been safe spaces and chill spaces but in the mainstream there hasn't been anything like that."

The non-faith-based organisation's volunteers often have a background in mental health, psychology or personal experience, which made them different to the usual festival care organisations, Ms Montgomery said.

Young people dancing at night club - Hands up and multicolored confetti at nightclub after party - Nightlife concept with afterparty crowd celebrating dj concert festival event - Retro contrast filter

Photo: 123RF

What do they do?

Festivals - especially multi-day ones - could be quite challenging emotionally and physically, especially with unregulated substances thrown into the mix, Ms Montgomery said.

"Generally during festivals you have security and you have medical, but you don't have a team that can deal with issues such as those.

"Every festival organiser knows that there is a couple of people who run into that sort of trouble at their events, so we come and we support those people."

DeepSpace tries to avoid dealing with drunkenness and focus on those who have used drugs or were struggling emotionally.

It aims to stop those under the influence of drugs from being kicked out or arrested.

"We're roaming around festivals making sure everybody is good and all checked up on and if they're not, we can take them back to the space and they can talk to someone and come to in a nice, comfortable environment rather than being pushed down to the ground by security and escorted into a room."

DeepSpace sets up two tents with blankets, pillows, mattresses and warm lighting with areas for talking and sleeping.

"We also have supplies if a guest is non-verbal. Art supplies and clipboards, tactile things to help them get more comfortable," Ms Montgomery said.

"A safe, confidential space is paramount, hence why our space is blocked off and private from bystanders."


Ms Montgomery said DeepSpace had been "very well received". It'd had "amazing" feedback and the positive response showed in the organisation's rapid growth.

But there was some concern about such a group at an event.

"Some festival organisers can be a bit nervous about taking on DeepSpace … because of the legalities surrounding drugs."

In those situations, DeepSpace would not advertise its attendance.

"We want to protect the organisers and protect the guests in any way that we can and we understand there may be some legalities around that … but because we are all around festival care it's a bit easier."

Mitch Lowe founded Audiology Touring, which organises large festivals like Bay Dreams and Soundsplash.

He employed DeepSpace for Bay Dreams at Mount Maunganui this year because he wanted to "extend our customer care beyond what's expected at festivals.

"I feel it's very important to the people's overall festival experience, knowing they can have a non-judgmental place to speak to people that understand them or that have experience in counselling.

"It's a great proactive way to reduce harm and that has to be the number one priority over everything else."

He saw no complications in employing a group that worked with people who had consumed illegal substances.

"People have taken drugs for centuries and it will continue to happen, so the question isn't about what's right and wrong, or legal verse illegal, it's about how can we reduce harm and ultimately save lives.

"As proven by Australia lately, the answer is simply not by saying no or pushing harder penalties. We need to educate attendees."

Who else is there for you?

Close up of a St John ambulance on a residential street.

St John Ambulance. Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

St John medical director Dr Tony Smith said the organisation was the country's "number one provider of medical services at events including the country's largest festivals".

Treatment provided ranged from blisters and dehydration to intoxication and more.

"St John also treats patients who present with symptoms of recreational drug use.

"We have not identified any notable increase on previous years of people needing treatment for drug use at festivals.

"Our ambulance officers are trusted professionals who provide medical treatment to all people without judgement. St John is supportive of any measures that reduce the number of people dying unnecessarily from recreational drugs and psychoactive substances and will continue to work with other organisations with this aim."

Red Frogs

Christian group Red Frogs started operating at large-scale events in 2010. In 2018, it attended 23 festivals and 38 other large events.

Red Frogs operations manager Josiah Telford said the organisation's aim was to reduce harm in situations involving alcohol or other substances.

It had identified more than 10 years ago that aside from medical teams, there weren't other services at large events to help patrons in need, he said.

"As a result, Red Frogs adopts several approaches when going to a festival ... We work closely with the festival organisers to make sure that we address the needs of their patrons. These include services such as hydration stations; at a recent festival we handed out over 12,000 litres of water in 11 hours. We hand out Red Frog Lollies and have teams roaming throughout the festival, engaging with patrons and keeping a keen eye out for anyone who may be needing assistance."

It also provided a "chill out" space for people needing a break and referred people to medical teams when needed.

During a large festival Red Frogs estimated it could directly support as many as 180 people, but typically helped about 30-50 people.

Alcohol was the leading factor affecting those who Red Frogs cared for, although substance abuse often played a part, Mr Telford said.

"One other major issue, however, that we see far too often is people being left alone. Our Red Frog teams often find patrons in dangerous and vulnerable situations who have had friends leave and we are able to step in and help provide immediate care for patrons ... a lot of what Red Frogs do wouldn't be needed if friends looked out for each other."

More and more, event organisers were taking a more holistic approach, Mr Telford said. That included providing care alongside entertainment, food and other experiences.

Common issues

The issues DeepSpace dealt with depended on the type of festival, Ms Montgomery said.

The most common problem at multi-day festivals was people not getting enough sleep, food or water.

"Those are the biggest ones. People often think it's people tripped out on drugs but generally it's people who aren't doing those three basic things and the biggest one is sleep.

"Whether you take substances or not [if you] don't sleep, eat or drink for three to five days you are going to start getting delusional and emotions are going to start running really high."

The group tended to get busier towards the end of an event when people had "really wrung themselves out".

Ms Montgomery said she hoped to see initiatives like DeepSpace "all around the festival scene".

"We're also going to expand out into consent issues because … what is so important is not only drugs but sex and consent issues."

Consent club

Another initiative for improved festival safety is in its fledgling stages.

Run by Ollin Pérez Raynaud, Consent Club is a volunteer group in Auckland that operates at smaller scale festivals or parties.

It promotes consent culture and is oriented towards victim or survivor support with a focus on de-escalation of harmful situations.

It's only been in action at smaller events so far and while there was lots to learn, the results had been positive, Ms Pérez Raynaud said.

The group was mainly the work of women who were aware of how often consent issues occurred and how little they were reported and dealt with, she said.

"We are trying to change that by promoting a culture of consent at parties with the aim of not only partying safer, but to hopefully effect change outside of the festival scene too.

"Everyone should have the right to feel safe, without fearing to be groped or assaulted in any way.

"At festivals, security guards and existing support structures are not sufficiently equipped to deal with boundary crossing and sexual assault. Generally, only the most serious cases of assault will receive attention, and even then a lot of people do not report them because of feelings of shame and fear of being re-victimised or put in doubt.

"Social issues that exist outside of festivals, like sexual assault, can become less easy to manage in a party environment, especially without the right support."

She hoped Consent Club would grow an other similar groups would be set up.

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