Reprinted from "Recovery: Stigma and Inclusion" issue of Visions Journal, 2017, 13 (1), p. 25
Most people think you have to be nuts to do stand-up comedy.
I teach stand-up comedy as a form of therapy. It’s not as crazy as it seems. Stand Up For Mental Health (SMH) is a program that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health challenges as a way for them to build confidence and fight public stigma.
In the mental health field, service providers talk a lot about restoring wellness by accessing people’s strengths, but we don’t tend to say to someone, “You have a great sense of humour—let’s use it to build you up and give you confidence.”
Unlikely as it seems, I got my start in comedy as a trainer at the Vancouver Crisis Centre. There, I had a captive audience for my jokes, and I thought I was getting pretty funny—that is, until I signed up to perform on amateur night at a local club and was greeted with five minutes of dead silence.
I decided to take a comedy course. The next time I went on-stage, I was prepared and had a great set. I knew from that moment that I just had to do stand-up comedy.
In 2004, I founded SMH in Vancouver, BC. Since then, I’ve trained approximately 500 comics in partnership with mental health organizations in more than 35 cities in Canada, the US and Australia. We’ve performed over 500 shows on military bases and for correctional facilities, Veterans Affairs, government departments, corporations, universities, colleges, medical schools and comedy and arts festivals.
The program was successful almost right away. There was great support from the Vancouver mental health community, and organizations began to book us for shows. Students often hear about us by word of mouth, but we also get referrals from the mental health community. In 2006, other mental health organizations started asking me to establish SMH in their cities. I train the SMH comics via Skype and then fly in at the end of the program to perform with them.
Funding was another matter. For the first 10 years or so, I donated a lot of my time to keep the program running. But in the past 4 years, the program has become so successful, it’s been able to fund itself. In fact, even though I’m trained as a counsellor, Stand Up For Mental Health has been my main gig since 2004.
During the first class of the SMH program, I give the comics an overview of what stand-up comedy entails. We then look at some joke-writing techniques used by top stand-up comics. Subsequent classes are spent generating material and brainstorming jokes. In the last month or so leading up to the showcase, we practise our performance, including timing and delivery.
I got the idea for SMH by watching students in the Stand-Up Comedy Clinic course I was teaching at Langara College. Even though the Langara program has nothing to do with mental health, many of my students overcame long-standing depression and phobias over the course of the program, as well as increasing their confidence and self-esteem.
One student told me that she had always had a fear of flying, but that the day after our showcase, she got on a plane and found that her fear was gone. She said, “Once I’d done stand-up comedy, I felt like I could do anything!” I was inspired by her and by others who gave me similar feedback. I decided to offer this sort of opportunity to those with psychiatric disorders, mental illness and other mental health challenges.
One of my comics who has taken numerous street drugs, including crystal meth, said that doing comedy is the best high she’s ever had—and performing is 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.
Another comic 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 humour; 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 and allowed her to engage with all those so-called scary, normal people. In other words, she had achieved a state of wellness when it came to interacting with the outside world.
The same comic 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 with 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 also had my own experiences to draw on. I myself have had depression, and in my view, there’s no better medicine than laughter—both being able to laugh and being able to make others laugh. I believe that a key component to recovery is the ability to see humour in adverse situations. And when you have a mental illness, that often means being able to laugh at yourself.
Comedy helped me tremendously in my own recovery process. The fact that I got up in front of audiences all across North America and Australia and told my story gave me confidence and helped me to combat the negative feelings I had about my own mental health.
Watching comics with mental health challenges also enables an audience to see the individuals as human and relatable, which helps to counteract public stigma and the negative stereotypes often propagated by the media. The best comment I ever heard about one of my students was someone from the audience saying, “That guy on stage has schizophrenia and he was hilarious!” How often do you hear “schizophrenia” and “hilarious” in the same sentence?
Many of my comics face stigma on a daily basis, and some have even come to think of themselves as “screwed up” or “dysfunctional.” But 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 great comedy material. They can’t wait to tell other people about the time they thought they were Jesus or when they maxed out their credit card and ran around naked!
Here are a few examples of how my comics have taken their experience with mental illness and created some fantastic stand-up material:
I went to a support group for shy people; no one showed up. (Paul Decarie)
I wanted to go to Paranoids Anonymous but no one would tell me where the meetings were. (Paul Decarie)
When I was in the psych ward, the doctor said I wasn’t ready to go home, so I tried to prove it to him by doing a complicated art project. It involved tying sheets together and letting myself out the window. (Joan Stone)
I take lithium but I’m coming off of it. I’d much rather be solar-powered. (Amanda Azzopardi)
I’m not saying that comedy is a cure-all or a magic bullet, but in certain cases it seems to aid people in their recovery journeys. All too often we see the process of achieving mental 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 humour will help you make sure that it isn’t.
In the Vancouver area, the cost of the SMH program is on a sliding scale according to the comic’s income, but we never turn anyone away for financial reasons. Our website, www.standupformentalhealth.com, is also a great information resource. It contains dozens of videos of comics I’ve trained in Canada, the US and Australia and is a terrific source of humour and inspiration. Check it out!
About the author
David is a Counsellor, Stand-Up Comic, Author, and Founder of Stand Up For Mental Health, a program that teaches people with mental health challenges how to do stand-up comedy. David is featured in the VOICE Award–winning documentary Cracking Up and the award-winning Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary Crack Up. See www.standupformentalhealth.com