Juliette is MQ’s copywriter and a professional comedian.
Some might think mental illness is no laughing matter. But for others, living with mental health conditions might actually prove to be helped with a joke or two.
So, ahead of April Fool’s day tomorrow, we take a look at how humour can sometimes help when dealing with mental illness and why comedy can hide more than the tears of a clown.
Trickster characters in mythology tread the lines between saying what is socially acceptable and what is socially unacceptable – the tension builds and the relief comes from laughter. Evolutionarily speaking, laughter comes from relief from tension. A cave man might have been running away from a sabre toothed tiger, the tension building, only for the predator to fall off the edge of a cliff. Our cave man might then laugh in relief because the story ended differently to what was feared. The tension was relieved and our nervous system wants to relax. Our body then laughs in order to reset, to self-sooth, to internally massage itself with the gentle reverberation of our diaphragm moving otherwise known as laughter.
Whether a joke is a longer story or a quick one-liner, it builds the tension, then relieves it with a twist to the plot. We think we know where we’re going then we’re surprised and delighted by the jack-knife of the punchline. Just like the sabre-toothed tiger chasing the cave man, we are being chased by our own thoughts predicting how things will go and just like the cave man laughing in relief at not being eaten, we laugh when the joke challenges us to think differently and see things differently.
A joke can be the quickest way to change someone’s mind about something. How do I know? I’ve been working as a comedian for over a decade. And I’ve been working hard to change people’s minds about mental illness for far, far longer.
Some people can find the subject of mental illness tense to talk about. Some people still fear the idea of “insanity” and fear those with mental illness due to the pervasive stigma charities like MQ are working hard to address. Still, that tension can exist. Some people still see mental illness as beyond the realms of what is “socially acceptable”. The stigma is being challenged and times are changing. And comedy can and has been a great tool to help move the conversation forward.
There are some suggestions when joking about mental illness though. Is the joke from an informed perspective? Would the joker be willing to be held accountable for their words? Who or what is the butt of the joke? There’s always a butt of the joke, so who or what is it? And is the joke punching up (taking down higher powers or concepts that need, in the joker’s view, to be taken down a peg or two?) or punching down (belittling or hurting a person or group of people already downtrodden or underdogs?). This is why jokes about Hitler during World War 2 were so important – a huge power that threatened lives and ways of life that needed to be taken down a peg or two. Jokes have the power to diffuse, equalise and challenge.
When I’ve joked about my mental illness on stage, I’ve made sure I’m aware of the above. I’m making fun of the stigma and misconceptions. In the way I present myself I showcase a bright, glittery, colourful costume and make up to counteract the years of images of “head in hands” or “black and white” images of people with mental illness. I present myself as me, and the jokes find the colour and fun in the pain of the experiences I’ve had living with mental illnesses.
Comedians are often seen as the life of the party, but what happens when the party ends?
Unsurprisingly, research has shown that comedians are more likely to experience mental illness than the general population. Indeed, in a 2014 study comedians were shown to have higher chance of displaying mental ill health including psychotic traits than people who do not make laughter their lifeline.
In the aforementioned study comedians – meaning those who make a living from performing comedy professionally as opposed to actors – comedians were shown to have “an unusual personality structure which may help to explain the facility for comedic performance.” The study conducted by the University of Oxford also found that comedians are more likely to have experienced traumatic events in their childhood, which may contribute to the development of mental health conditions later in life.
One famous comedian who has publicly spoken about his mental health is Jim Carrey. Carrey has been open about his struggles with depression and has even called it “a lifelong battle.” In a 2020 interview with the New York Times, Carrey stated that he has “gone through different things in [his] life that have informed the depression.”
Another famous funny person who has been open about her mental health experiences is Sarah Silverman. Silverman has spoken about her struggles with depression and anxiety, and has even incorporated her experiences into her comedy. In a 2015 interview with Glamour, Silverman stated, “I want to destigmatise things that people go through. I lost my mom; I’m going to die too. That’s life. There’s no tragedy in life; there’s only comedy.”
Continuing the list of the fabulous funny people who have been open about their mental health is Maria Bamford. Bamford has spoken about her struggles with bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and has even incorporated her experiences into her comedy. In her Netflix series “Lady Dynamite,” Bamford explores her own mental health journey with humour and vulnerability.
A personal favourite of this writer and a comedy performer who has used humour to cope with mental illness is Stephen Fry. Fry has spoken openly about his struggles with bipolar disorder, and has even written a book about his experiences. In the book, Fry discusses how humour has been a crucial part of his coping strategy, stating, “humour, like love, can survive all things.”
Of course, we must pay respect to a comedian who was open about his struggles with mental illness and a person this writer owes her career on stage to, Robin Williams. Williams was known for his high-energy comedic performances, but he also battled with depression and addiction throughout his life. In 2014, Williams died by suicide, sparking a conversation about the link between creativity and mental illness. At this time I was invited to speak publicly about my comedy and mental illness frequently, leading to important conversations of which I was privileged to be a part.
So why are comedians more likely to experience mental illness? There are several medically proven reasons why people who are funny often have mental ill health. One reason is that humour can be used as a coping mechanism for dealing with negative emotions. Comedians may use humour to mask pain and present a happy exterior to the world, even when they are struggling on the inside. Sounds familiar…
Additionally, the lifestyle of a comedian can be stressful and unpredictable. Comedians often work long hours, travel frequently, and face rejection and criticism on a regular basis. This can lead to high levels of stress and anxiety, which can contribute to the development of or challenge to recovery from mental health conditions. Again, this is not unfamiliar to this humble MQ writer.
There is also evidence to suggest that creativity and mental illness may be linked. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that individuals with bipolar disorder scored higher on measures of creativity than individuals without the disorder. This suggests that there may be a genetic or biological link between creativity and mental illness.
But why should creativity be channelled towards humour when dealing with mental illness?
Humour has long been recognised as a powerful coping mechanism for dealing with difficult situations. When we use humour to cope, we can distance ourselves from our problems, gain perspective, and even find moments of joy and levity during difficult depths. Humour allows us to take control of our situation. When we can find humour in a difficult experience, we are no longer at the mercy of our emotions. Instead, we can create a sense of agency and empowerment, which can be crucial for our mental wellbeing.
Another benefit of using humour to cope is that it can help us build resilience. When we are able to find moments of joy in the midst of struggles, we are able to tap into our inner strength and find hope in even the bleakest situations.
There is also scientific evidence to support the use of humour in coping with mental illness. A study published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry suggests that humour is associated with a positive anatomical effect. Another study published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that humour was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety in individuals with schizophrenia. Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology found that humour was associated with reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
And for me personally, why do I choose comedy to cope? Well, for me it saved my life. When I couldn’t laugh about anything I thought or felt, hearing others laugh was a life-raft in the sea of bleak thoughts. When I couldn’t find joy or reason to go on, if I could make others laugh, I could remind myself life is surprising. Laughter is a reaction of surprise and joy, and it reminds me no matter how dark things feel, life might just surprise you. Just like a joke will have a twist ending, no matter how dark times are, there’s always the chance the light will catch you suddenly without expectation or prediction. So stick around for the punchline, no matter how long the set up.
It’s important to note that not all comedians or individuals with mental illness are the same. Mental illness is complex and multifaceted, and it’s important not to generalise or stereotype individuals based on their profession or experiences. It’s important for comedians and all individuals to prioritize their mental health and seek help if needed.
The post No Fooling Around: Humour and Mental Health first appeared on MQ Mental Health Research.