Most people think you have to be nuts to do stand-up comedy. I offer it as a form of therapy. And it’s not as crazy as it seems. Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH) is my program where I teach stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues as a way of building confidence and fighting public stigma.
Since I began it in 2004 I’ve trained approximately 400 comics in partnership with mental health organizations in over 30 cities across North America. We’ve performed over 500 shows on military bases, for correctional facilities, Veterans Affairs, universities, colleges, government departments, corporations, medical school curriculums, and comedy and arts festivals.
SMH is also incredibly cost-effective because every dollar spent on the program serves a dual purpose: recovery and fighting public stigma.
I myself have depression. And there’s no better medicine than laughter. One of my comics who has taken numerous drugs including crystal meth said it’s the best high she’s ever had – it’s free, legal, and has no side effects. Oh yeah, and it’s fun! It’s the best kind of wellness activity I can think of. As a matter of fact, I believe that a key component to wellness is the ability to see humor in adverse situations and the ability to laugh at yourself.
I got the idea for SMH from watching students in my Langara College Stand-Up Comedy Clinic course. Even though the Langara course has nothing to do with mental heath, I’ve had students overcome long-standing depressions and phobias, not to mention increasing their confidence and self-esteem. One student told me she had a fear of flying, but that the day after our showcase she got on a plane and her fear was gone. She said, “Once I’d done stand-up comedy I felt like I could do anything!” I was inspired by hers and other similar feedback to give this experience to my people, those who had some sort of psychiatric disorder, mental illness, mental health issue, or whatever we call it these days.
In mental health we talk a lot about restoring wellness by accessing people’s strengths, but nowhere do we say to someone, “You have a great sense of humor, let’s use it to build you up and give you confidence.” One of my comics who had schizophrenia found it extremely difficult to ride public transit. As she sat on the bus her voices would say things like, “Everyone knows that you’re a freak, they think you’re crazy.” After taking SMH she realized that she had a wicked sense of humor, and the next time she rode the bus she started joking with the other passengers. It was a great ride. She now had a skill that leveled the playing field between her and these so-called scary normal people. In other words she had achieved a state of wellness when it came to interacting with the outside world.
She also came to class one day wearing a striped shirt. She said that the voices hadn’t let her wear stripes for years but now that she was doing comedy she wasn’t so afraid of them. Another student who also had schizophrenia said that for about a week after we did a show his voices would either become quiet or actually tell him positive things. I’m not saying that comedy is the cure or magic bullet, but there certainly seem to be some interesting effects!
Almost as bad as having a mental illness is the shame that goes along with it. And shame is the opposite of wellness. But comedy helps people to achieve wellness because in comedy the more screwed up and dysfunctional you are, the better your act is going to be! This axiom creates a cognitive shift in the comics. All of a sudden the very things they are ashamed of become wonderful resources that bring about a sense of wellness. They can’t wait to tell other people about the time they thought they were Jesus, or when they maxed out their Visa card and ran around naked!
All too often we see the process of achieving wellness as a serious and arduous task. But it doesn’t have to be. As a matter of fact it shouldn’t be! And having a great sense of humor will help you make sure that it isn’t!