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Comedy and Mental Illness

Christy Matta M.A. is a trainer, consultant and writer. She is the author of “The Stress Response: How Dialectical Behavior Therapy Can Free ...Read More

Is bipolar disease funny? How about thoughts of suicide or obsessive worries of harming others?

Mental illness typically is not considered a topic that is funny. Certainly people who have a mental illness have been victims of ridicule or the butt of jokes, but can talking about mental illness be funny? And can it be done without demeaning or negatively targeting people who suffer with a mental illness?

Mental illness plays a central role in comedy for comedian Maria Bamford. She is diagnosed with bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and has a history of suicidal thoughts.

She’s has several comic CD’s, performs live stand-up and has been praised by stars, such as Judd Apatow. And what makes her comedy so powerful and, yes, funny, is that she doesn’t skirt or apologize for they symptoms of her mental illness.

Her humor is self-deprecating, but not self-demeaning. Through comedy she explores her real life struggles with depression, anxiety and OCD. She was named one of the years 50 funniest people by Rolling Stone Magazine in part for a bit in which she imagines what it would be like if people dismissed physical illness in the same way that they do mental illness.

Bamford, of course, is not the only comedian who is diagnosed with a mental illness and who uses it in her routine. Comedian Joshua Walters, who has bipolar disease, explores creativity and mental illness in his comedy. As a co-founder of the Depression Bipolar Support Alliance Young Adults chapter in San Francisco, Walters has developed humor as a way to address the topic of mental illness and reframe it as positive.

“Everyone is just a little bit mad,” says Walters. “How much depends on where you fall in the spectrum. How much depends on how lucky you are.”

The combination of comedy and mental illness may not be so controversial as it sounds at first. Instability can make for great comedy. And audiences often can relate to a comic’s vulnerabilities when they are up on stage.

Comic Eddie Pepitone, who suffered a nervous breakdown at age thirty-five, panic attacks and claustrophobia says comedy can help you get through some of the toughest symptoms of a mental illness.

On the podcast, Mental Illness Happy Hour, Paul Gilmartin interviews comedians, as well as friends, artists and doctors about mental illness, trauma, addiction and negative thinking. He talks with people such as Chris Hardwick, a podcaster, comic and writer about his history of panic attacks, drinking issues and middle-school humiliations and Kerri Kenney-Silver, comedienne, actress and musician, about her history of substance abuse.

When it’s done well, as it is by many of the comedians mentioned above and many more who are unmentioned, comedy about mental illness can create a space for us to laugh and let down our guard in a safe environment. When we do this, we just might find that barriers and stigma also relent, maybe just a bit or just for a moment, while we laugh.

Keep Reading By Author Christy Matta, M.A.
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