Health

Can comedy be a tool in mental health care? People providing a platform for expressing personal experiences and a less clinical environment for talking about illness think it can.

By Jo Hartley.

Comedy for mental health

David Granirer (centre) with Australian participants in his Stand Up for Mental Health program.
Credit: Stand Up For Mental Health

Stand-up comedian Tim Bradford’s bipolar disorder is no joke. It’s stalked him for decades, causing periods of depression and suicidal ideation. But Bradford has found a way to use his bipolar in his work. Nowadays he, and audiences of hundreds, are, quite literally, laughing in its face.

“I started doing stand-up comedy two-and-a-half years ago after my psychologist asked me to do something bold,” he says. “I got hooked and, as my routines developed, I incorporated bipolar into my act by playing the character of my ‘manic’ self.

“My manic self is bold, loud and does better with the ladies. He also has a fairly self-deprecating humour so people know I’m having a laugh at myself and are able to laugh, too.”

About three million Australians suffer anxiety or depression. A recent beyondblue report revealed that one in five Australians took leave in the past 12 months because of mental health issues. And Safe Work Australia has found mental health compensation claims are fast becoming one of the most costly problems in the Australian workplace.

It’s an issue workers’ compensation provider EML is also trying to address with comedy.

“With many of our long-term and complex compensation claims, there’s a lot of psychosocial activity that may have caused or exacerbated mental health injuries in the first place,” says Anna Feringa, principal consultant at EML.

“We wanted to invest in a light-hearted initiative that showed employers how to prevent these injuries by starting up conversations about mental wellbeing.”

The outcome was a series of humorous videos for employers, entitled (Mis)behave with Dave, featuring Australian comedian Dave O’Neil. The topics were based on the key indicators of workplace mental health injuries, and included civility, bullying and harassment, workload, change management and mental health stigma.

During the process, EML worked in conjunction with expert psychologist Dr Peter Cotton, whose work is renowned in the workers’ compensation industry.

“Using comedy around mental health was a bold move, so we needed to ensure our message was being delivered appropriately and was backed by clinical support and approval,” says Feringa. “Peter looked over everything to ensure there was no misleading information or anything dismissive or mocking about mental health.”

Since launching in May, EML has received glowing feedback from employers. While some people have said it feels wrong to laugh at mental health issues, they’re also reporting benefits from doing so.

“People tell us they haven’t had such a laugh while exploring such a scary and important topic,” says Feringa. “The word ‘scary’ emulates what we’ve been seeing. People want to help but just don’t know how.”

Employers are becoming more aware of how mental health issues can affect their bottom line. In 2014, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) released their “Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace, Return on Investment Analysis” report. Their findings showed mental illness costs Australian workplaces about $10.9 billion a year in lost productivity. PwC estimated that implementing an effective mental health strategy can result in a positive return on investment of $2.30 on average for every dollar spent by an organisation.

The founder of The Laughter Clinic, comedian Mark McConville, is an advocate for the benefits of a mentally healthy workplace. With an academic background in suicide prevention, through studies at Griffith University, and 19 years of performing experience, McConville delivers presentations and workshops to corporates.

“A married couple in 2012 changed the course of my life,” says McConville. “After my show the couple approached me. The wife was crying and thanking me, saying that her husband hadn’t laughed out loud for nearly three years since his post-traumatic stress diagnosis.

“I started to look at what humour and laughter does psychologically, and how this affected depression and, by association, suicide. I became keen to find a way to positively link comedy to mental health.”

The result was McConville’s Laughter Clinic and his message, Remembering to Laugh. Incorporating a comedy routine within his presentations, McConville gets his audience laughing together. He then engages with them to explain the benefits of what’s happening to them physically and psychologically at that point.

“I never make any jokes about mental health and illness,” says McConville. “I focus on the benefits of humour for mental health, and teach people how to laugh more while reducing their exposure to the known risk factors of suicidality.”

McConville is not a fan of comedians making fun of mental health issues. “It takes a very clever comic to be able to talk about mental health issues on stage in a way that serves to benefit the audience,” he says.

But some believe a more head-on approach can be beneficial. 

David Granirer is a Canada-based comedian and founder of Stand Up for Mental Health, an organisation born from his experience with depression. Like McConville, Granirer runs workshops. However, his approach is teaching people to write and deliver a stand-up comedy act, using their own mental health issues as material.

“Participants work on their material weekly and 70 per cent of this is about their mental health experiences,” Granirer says. “We look at what does and doesn’t work and then we brainstorm making it funny. Everyone with a mental illness has a story, but a lot of those stories involve times when they didn’t have control. Here, they have control and can shape their stories to tell them with comedy.”

Granirer says these stories resonate with the audience, forcing them to re-evaluate their perceptions and prejudices around mental health. It also empowers them to start conversations about their own issues. “One lady came to a show with her niece, who’d always been told, ‘There’s something wrong with Aunty.’ Afterwards, the woman said to her niece how she’d related to the comedian and the niece finally understood what was ‘wrong’,” he says.

Granirer has conducted workshops in Australia. In 2015, Sydneysider Melissa de Silva was one of his participants. Her first performance was at Sydney Town Hall where she “joked” about her bipolar disorder.

“I think that people who are concerned they’re experiencing a mental health issue find it easier to listen to a joke,” de Silva says. “They’re getting the information and underlying message of its seriousness, but they don’t feel threatened or scared.

“It might be just the thing to make them realise that they need to seek help.”

So, how effective can comedy be when it comes to alleviating, destigmatising and raising awareness of mental health?

“Comedy and mental health is an area where there’s been limited research, so we’re relying on anecdotes,” says Dr Stephen Carbone, beyondblue’s research and evaluation leader.

While the use of comedy may have benefits, Carbone says there’s a fine line between what’s funny and not. If the audience are not attuned to the comedy, they could feel offended or view the performance as mocking or trivialising the issues.

Similarly, when people are laughing at someone, it at least has the potential to further stigmatise a group or condition.

“We don’t want to ever become dismissive of mental health or lack understanding about the distress, pain and consequences of it,” Carbone says. “If done in the right way, with the right tone, comedy may well work. We just have to be very careful with how we do it.”

Tim Bradford has just completed a week’s comedy tour throughout Queensland and New South Wales as a fundraiser for beyondblue.

“I’d like to continue these fundraising tours, particularly in rural Australia where mental health issues are prevalent and suicide rates are horrendous,” he says. “Some towns haven’t had a comedy show in three years and I think they could benefit in multiple ways.

“Comedy is very cathartic and laughter helped me get through some really dark days.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 16, 2017 as "Laughing matters". Subscribe here.

Jo Hartley
is a freelance journalist