COMEDY

What It's Like To Have A Mental Illness On The Comedy Circuit

The comedy industry is full of people with mental health issues.

30/06/2016 10:44

"It's a double edged sword in that in one regard comedy is incredibly accepting," comedian Felicity Ward tells us.

The 36-year-old Australian, now resident in London, is just one of the many on the comedy circuit who suffers from mental illness.

Ward, whose 2014 show 'What If There's No Toilet?' touched on the link between her anxiety and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, tells The Huffington Post UK that you can have "most mental illnesses and still make a career out of comedy."

"People can know that you have that mental illness... which is great and accepting and unlike most workplaces, but on the other hand you can also have untreated mental illness, untreated alcoholism and drug abuse, and it’s an enabling environment."

Many of the great comics - Kenneth Williams, Stephen Fry, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Ellen Degeneres, Paul Merton, Lee Evans, Sarah Silverman - have also spoken openly about their inner struggles.

While comedians like Ruby Wax are adamant there's no scientific connection between mental illness and comedy, psychology graduate and comedy performer Doug Segal believes there's a widespread mental health issue within the industry. 

"It seems to me to be so endemic within performers, some sort of mental illness, be it anxiety, there’s a lot people with borderline personality disorders, an awful lot of people on the bipolar spectrum and any number of people that have depression, and I think they’ve all utilised those as engines to fire themselves," he says.

Dave J Hogan via Getty Images
Stephen Fry has been vocal about his struggles with bipolar disorder

While comedians like Ruby Wax are adamant there's no scientific connection between mental illness and comedy, psychology graduate and comedy performer Doug Segal believes there's a widespread mental health issue within the industry. 

"It seems to me to be so endemic within performers, some sort of mental illness, be it anxiety, there’s a lot people with borderline personality disorders, an awful lot of people on the bipolar spectrum and any number of people that have depression, and I think they’ve all utilised those as engines to fire themselves," he says.

Studies have been conducted to look into the issue, with one in 2014 by psychologists at the University of Oxford claiming comedians showed more evidence of psychotic traits than other entertainers.

Regardless of your views, one thing is certain, it's an issue on the circuit, and some believe comedy might not necessarily be a good career choice for people with mental health problems.

Like Felicity Ward, comedian and broadcaster Mark Dolan agrees it can make for a difficult lifestyle: "It's an unsteady and unpredictable work," he tells HuffPost UK. "That’s already a test of your mental health, just the uncertainty of the business you’re in."

Scott Campbell via Getty Images
Mark Dolan says humans aren't supposed to peak at 10pm

"The job of being a stand-up comedian, or indeed entertainer generally, is both good and bad for your mental health," Dolan says.

He cites financial uncertainty, the turbulence of the business and the abnormal lifestyle as negative aspects of the industry.

"I think the lifestyle doesn't really suit good mental health, because you've got to be on great form at 10 o'clock at night, and I think the body naturally isn't supposed to peak at that time," he adds.

"And then of course after the show, there's the wind-down, the temptation to have a beer and, in a way, keep the buzz going, which is inevitably not good for you."

Novelist and panel show regular Mark Watson, who has previously spoken about his issues with alcohol, is another who expresses concerns with the nature of the work and its impact on the mental well-being of performers.

"The highs and lows are quite extreme, your reputation is on the line virtually every day," he tells HuffPost UK. "There's an awful lot of competition, there's a lot of potential insecurities in terms of comparing yourself with other people and status anxiety."

John Phillips/PA Archive
Mark Watson has suffered from depression and spoke about it in his 2014 show 'Flaws'

Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Russell Kane also tells us the industry is particularly difficult for those with a fragile mental state.

"Part of the problem with my industry is you don’t work with anyone regularly," he says. "You bump into each other now and again every couple of years in the 'Mock The Week' green room or before you do the Channel 4 Gala. You're getting no constant contact."

Edinburgh Fringe regular Carl Donnelly suggests that even if a performer had no signs of mental instability, the line of work would certainly pull it out of them.

"I know famous comedians who I wouldn’t say have got any noticeable mental health problems but I do think if they’re in there, it would draw it out because you do spend so much time on your own, ruminating on whether a gig was good enough,” he says in an interview.

Dominic Marley
Carl Donnelly's new show 'Bad Man Tings' taps into depression, divorce, and vegetable planting

Mental health expert and stand-up performer John Ryan, who has had research papers published on comedy and mental health, says the "pressure to be funny" can place a lot of strain on comedians.

"The nature of comedy as an industry is not very good for people’s mental well-being, because you’re lone workers, there’s a lot of travelling, a lot of stress, you’re only as good as your last gig," he says. 

"I think that if you have a mental health issue, stand-up is really not a good place for you to be… Because you as a stand-up tend to be isolated and living on your own, it’s hard then for people to realise that you’ve got a problem," Ryan adds.

There may, however, be an upside in the form of the comradeship and community that travels with comedians as an informal support network while on tour.

David Sell
John Ryan has had research papers published looking at comedy and mental health

Writer and stand-up Fern Brady, who has spoken at length about the effect her line of work on her mental well-being, believes the ease in which comedians discuss mental health with their fellow performers is completely different to a typical office.

"When comedy's going really well, I don't think it benefits my mental health at all because I've become more narcissistic, whereas I used to be a bit quieter before I started," she tells HuffPost UK.

"[But] one good thing about the comedy industry is that they’re really open about mental health problems," she adds.

This degree of openness is so widespread in some levels of the comedy circuit, that's quite normal to talk about medication, diagnoses and other aspects of mental health backstage.

"Comedy is a weird world because you can be in a backstage room with eight other comedians and you'll know everyone's diagnoses, everyone's mental health history, about everyone's divorce and weird sexual kinks but you won't know their middle name or where they grew up," London-based Danish comedian Sofie Hagen says.

This culture of sharing seems to be prevalent among many performers on the circuit, with some recommending therapists to each other or discussing methods of coping. Some suggest this is all down to how comics are wired.

"Comedians are the only people in this entire industry that talk about themselves consistently so if somebody is going to tell you they were depressed, it will be a comedian," former Cambridge Footlights member Pierre Novellie told WOW27 after his Edinburgh show 'Anxious Peter' in 2015.

Karla Gowlett
Sofie Hagen told us stand-up comedy was the only thing that could make her laugh or smile when she was first experiencing depression

Harriet Dyer, who runs mental health comedy night 'Barking Tales' in Manchester, tells HuffPost UK it was the process of writing a show about her eccentricities that made her realise she had mental health issues.

"When I did a show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, I was writing it about 'everyone thinks I’m mental but I'm just eccentric'," she said in an interview. "As I was writing everything down I was like ‘flippin' Nora, I think there is a problem actually' and so it really helped me. It was after the show that I got help."

There is also a range of mentally enriching perks that come from working in a creative field - the rush of adrenaline when performing that gives you a natural high, the scientifically proven benefit of having a creative outlet, and the obvious buzz you get from making money doing what you love.

Speaking in Radio 4's 'Tears Of A Clown', writer and performer Robin Ince summed it up: "The solitary nature of what they do may occasionally create too much self-reflection leading to the burden of too much self-loathing.

"But to me it seems that the act of showing off is also the answer to these possible demons. Comedians are lucky to have a valve. To me, stand-up comedy may be the disease, but it’s also the cure."

To blog as part of The Best Medicine email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com

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