We Could Learn A Thing Or Two About Mental Health From The Comedy Industry

Talking openly, finding light in the darkness and setting up support networks are some key elements to overcoming mental health issues.

30/06/2016 11:17 | Updated 30 June 2016

One night at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2014, comedians were winding down from a long day at the nation's most arduous comedy festival when the news broke that beloved actor and stand-up Robin Williams had passed away.

What followed was a dramatic shift on the UK comedy circuit, thrusting mental health into the spotlight. Performers who had already spoken about their mental illnesses on stage drew our attention, and an increased number felt it was more acceptable to join in.

The result was, at the return of the Fringe the following year, an overarching theme of talking about mental health and opening up onstage (along with the festival's first ever Mental Health Gala).

Scott Campbell via Getty Images
Richard Herring performs at the Edinburgh Fringe

Comedy has always pushed the boundaries of what is acceptable, but when it comes to mental health, there's a lot more performers both talking and joking about it.

There are two distinct ways in which performers within the industry are open about mental health: many are laying their cards on the table backstage, in green rooms or on tour, while some even take their mental health issues on stage and draw on them as part of their act.

Comics like Felicity Ward, Doug Segal and Mark Watson are finding nuanced ways to create laughter from mental illness. They have all, at some point in their lives, suffered from mental health issues or experienced them very closely.

Some utilise humour as a way of openly dealing with their own personal mental health issues, others use their notoriety to educate others. And that's where the key to helping themselves and helping others lies.

Mental health issues are best tackled by discussion, by dialogue rather than shutting them away... Comedy at it’s best doesn’t just play things for laughs but stimulates discussion, and debate, and exchange of ideas. Comedy’s in a good position to do that because it is fun so it can be a way into heavy topics which otherwise people shy away from.” Mark Watson

"The fact that people don’t talk about it is totally baffling to me in every single way," John Robertson told The Huffington Post UK in an interview. "It's the most useful thing you can do because it’s only cured by fucking talking.”

Robertson's rhetoric was echoed by several comedians we spoke to on the subject - they just don't get why people are so afraid of talking about mental illness.

Doug Segal thinks the reason may lie in fear of employment-based repercussions.

"We’re all self-employed," he mused. "If we’re our own bosses, we don’t have to worry about someone in the personnel department knowing that we suffer from depression because we are that personnel department.”

John Robertson's set
John Robertson speaks openly about a spate of suicides that have affected him in his comedy

Many people who make the effort to laugh about their mental illnesses on stage find it cathartic, offering them the chance to "own" their problems and attack their diseases head-on.

A study from the University of Western Ohio looked to assess if funny people were more or less mentally healthy, and found those who made affiliative or self-enhancing jokes about their psychological issues were more able to handle their issues than those who used humour in a more aggressive or self-defeating way.

Being open about mental illness onstage, coupled with the therapeutic nature of sharing in a public forum, can lift a huge weight from performers.

Taking away this idea that if there's a label that you happen to fall under, it isn't everything that defines you - I think that’s the power of comedy. Taylor Glenn

"I think a lot of the issues around depression and anxiety have to do with feeling isolated, and ashamed, and inadequate," cabaret performer Dusty Limits told HuffPost UK.

"So when you can talk about this stuff very openly and bluntly and get people to laugh, you actually feel like you’re sharing and not being judged for it."

Speaking to Robin Ince in Radio 4's 'Tears Of A Clown', Simon Amstell also offered a similar sentiment.

"If I say something really shameful in front of strangers and they laugh rather than abandoning me, I feel I’m OK in the world," he said. "I feel I’m part of humanity rather than a broken bit of it."

A 2014 study found that "making light of darkness" (as Dusty Limits puts it) can not only be positive step for the performer, it also serves to normalise mental illnesses to people who aren't usually exposed to them.

Arcane Sin
'I find it very therapeutic to talk about my own problems in front of a room full of strangers and make fun of them,' Dusty Limits tells HuffPost UK

Other experts believe that laughter can also help an individual view their problems as less threatening, and that a "humorous perspective creates psychological distance", which can help overcome feelings of being overwhelmed.

While having the confidence and mindset to openly make light of our own problems is something the comedy industry could teach wider society, the sense of community and openness among comic backstage could be equally valuable.

Within the regular comedy circuit across the UK many comics are talking about their issues in green rooms and using their fellow performers as a support network.

“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," Sofie Hagen says.

Carl Donnelly said being in comedy can offer strange situations which prompt deep, meaningful conversations with strangers simply because they're in the same line of work.

Finding the laughter in it and doing what's familiar to me which is making fun of it, to be honest about how scary those thoughts were and to get a laugh from that… that’s the most empowering thing. Taylor Glenn

"You can often find yourself going to a festival somewhere in another country... you and one other comedian away for a weekend together even though you might not really know each other so you find yourself bonding and talking about stuff,"Donnelly said.

"So I've probably shared more about what was going on in my life with comedians who I didn't even know that well and vice versa than I would've with close friends."

Speaking to The Scotsman, comedian Doug Segal said there's even a hidden network of groups on social media platforms for people in the industry to talk about their mental health problems, share experiences and help each other.

“It’s endemic," he said. "There’s an awful lot of my mates in there.”

Alexis Dubus Photography
Juliette Burton has been diagnosed with OCD, acute anxiety, manic depression, bipolar, anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating disorder as well as experiencing psychosis and agoraphobia

Comic Juliette Burton said it's important for comedians to hold onto their support networks, as the nature of the job means they're often isolated for long periods of time.

"You have to seize those moments when you meet a friend who you know you get on well with, because you are alone a lot of the time on tour and if you see someone that you know knows what you're going through and instantly all the barriers come down," she said.

To blog as part of The Best Medicine email

Suggest a correction