Can stand-up comedy help mental health?

Dave Chawner

One in six people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem16 million people in the UK experience a mental illness and know suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45. So with this in mind, you might be forgiven for thinking that mental health and comedy are not easy bedfellows

When I was teenager, I knew nothing about mental health. If you’d have talked about “safe spaces” I’d have thought that you meant a bank. If you’d given a “trigger warning” I’d have thought that was for the benefit of our US friends. And, what’s more, I didn’t care about mental health. Why would I? Like my Dad always used to say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” 

But, unfortunately my mental health did “break”.

Aged 17 I developed anorexia. I didn’t realise at the time; it was something that developed, rather than “began”. It took me a good few years to realise I had a problem, but I never went to get help because I never felt ill enough. When I was 23, I was diagnosed as severely clinically anorexic. I had fast-tracked treatment at The Maudsley Hospital in South London and went through 2.5 years of therapy. People are always interested to know what helped me recover and among many things, it was simple: comedy.  

I’m a professional stand-up comic. Comedy, for me, began as a hobby and has (unbelievably!) progressed into a job. One of the things that initially gripped me about stand up is how it plays with pain. Let me explain.  

The word “comedy” is believed to derive from the Ancient Greek kōmos meaning “to reveal”. It is comedy’s job to “reveal” things, to analyse, explain and understand. This was something I turned to when I was in recovery from anorexia. I’d never been able to explain what was going on inside my head; trying to explain what’s going on in your mind is like trying to explain a colour to someone who’s blind. So, humour became a way of understanding things. Then it became a way of explaining them. Now it’s become a way of helping other people. I know I’m not the only one.

Jessica Fostekew is a comic you might recognise from Live At The Apollo, QI or The Guilty Feminist podcast. She was nominated for “Best Show” at last year's Edinburgh Fringe for Hench a show which explores strength, and looks at mental strength. I chatted to her about the use of comedy in difficult topics.    

“There is a type of therapy (I learned about way after writing and touring Hench) for trauma which involves telling the story so many times it takes all the pain out of it and it’s used on women with bad birth experiences—they’re encouraged to tell people their story”.  

This is something that also seems to resonate for Jake Mills. He’s an award-winning comedian who, after an attempt on his life, set up The Hub Of Hope—the biggest and most comprehensive mental health signposting tool of its kind in The UK. I asked him about the link between mental health and comedy. 

"The combination of being told to speak out about mental health and writing self-deprecating comedy script, actually turned into the best type of therapy I could ever have had. Nothing has ever really helped normalise a thought or feeling quite like a joke that makes people openly say, “Me too!" 

Dr Dieter Declercq, Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at The University of Kent, believes that “Humour can shift our perspective on a difficult situation”. However, he is careful to add that “We should avoid easy generalisations like “All humour is good for you.” In his new book Satire, Comedy, and Mental Health he looks at how comedy can be used as a mental health resource. He notes that stand-up comedy is enjoyed with others, and “This social dimension is crucial for good mental health and recovery”. 

That’s why I’ve come up with a six-week comedy course aimed at people with mental health difficulties. By doing the course with like-minded people it builds lasting friendships, combats loneliness and normalises conversations around mental health; when audiences are laughing, they have to be listening, and when they’re listening, they can learn. It’s this unique opportunity that enables comedy to reach people in a completely different way to all the sob-stories, shocking stats and dry documentaries about mental illness. It can inspire with positivity rather than resorting to negativity.  

Stand up was integral to my recovery. I know I’m not alone in that. So, I want to pay that forward and show other people that your mental health doesn’t have to be “broke” before you can “fix it”.  

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, Beat is the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity, The Hub Of Hope is the UK’s most comprehensive mental health signposting database, 116 123 is the number for the Samaritans

Dave’s book Weight Expectations is out now . 


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