Can com­edy be a tool in men­tal health care? Jo Hart­ley talks to peo­ple pro­vid­ing a plat­form for ex­press­ing per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences and a less clin­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment for talk­ing about ill­ness.

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Stand-up co­me­dian Tim Brad­ford’s bipo­lar dis­or­der is no joke. It’s stalked him for decades, caus­ing pe­ri­ods of de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal ideation. But Brad­ford has found a way to use his bipo­lar in his work. Nowa­days he, and au­di­ences of hun­dreds, are, quite lit­er­ally, laugh­ing in its face.

“I started do­ing stand-up com­edy two-and-ahalf years ago af­ter my psy­chol­o­gist asked me to do some­thing bold,” he says. “I got hooked and, as my rou­tines de­vel­oped, I in­cor­po­rated bipo­lar into my act by play­ing the char­ac­ter of my ‘manic’ self.

“My manic self is bold, loud and does bet­ter with the ladies. He also has a fairly self-dep­re­cat­ing hu­mour so peo­ple know I’m hav­ing a laugh at my­self and are able to laugh, too.”

About three mil­lion Aus­tralians suf­fer anx­i­ety or de­pres­sion. A re­cent be­yond­blue re­port re­vealed that one in five Aus­tralians took leave in the past 12 months be­cause of men­tal health is­sues. And Safe Work Aus­tralia has found men­tal health com­pen­sa­tion claims are fast be­com­ing one of the most costly prob­lems in the Aus­tralian work­place.

It’s an is­sue work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion provider EML is also try­ing to ad­dress with com­edy.

“With many of our long-term and com­plex com­pen­sa­tion claims, there’s a lot of psy­choso­cial ac­tiv­ity that may have caused or ex­ac­er­bated men­tal health in­juries in the first place,” says Anna Feringa, prin­ci­pal con­sul­tant at EML.

“We wanted to in­vest in a light-hearted ini­tia­tive that showed em­ploy­ers how to pre­vent these in­juries by start­ing up con­ver­sa­tions about men­tal well­be­ing.”

The out­come was a se­ries of hu­mor­ous videos for em­ploy­ers, en­ti­tled (Mis)be­have with Dave, fea­tur­ing Aus­tralian co­me­dian Dave O’Neil. The top­ics were based on the key in­di­ca­tors of work­place men­tal health in­juries, and in­cluded ci­vil­ity, bul­ly­ing and ha­rass­ment, work­load, change man­age­ment and men­tal health stigma.

Dur­ing the process, EML worked in con­junc­tion with ex­pert psy­chol­o­gist Dr Peter Cot­ton, whose work is renowned in the work­ers’ com­pen­sa­tion in­dus­try.

“Us­ing com­edy around men­tal health was a bold move, so we needed to en­sure our mes­sage was be­ing de­liv­ered ap­pro­pri­ately and was backed by clin­i­cal sup­port and ap­proval,” says Feringa. “Peter looked over ev­ery­thing to en­sure there was no mis­lead­ing in­for­ma­tion or any­thing dis­mis­sive or mock­ing about men­tal health.”

Since launch­ing in May, EML has re­ceived glow­ing feed­back from em­ploy­ers. While some peo­ple have said it feels wrong to laugh at men­tal health is­sues, they’re also re­port­ing ben­e­fits from do­ing so.

“Peo­ple tell us they haven’t had such a laugh while ex­plor­ing such a scary and im­por­tant topic,” says Feringa. “The word ‘scary’ em­u­lates what we’ve been see­ing. Peo­ple want to help but just don’t know how.”

Em­ploy­ers are be­com­ing more aware of how men­tal health is­sues can af­fect their bot­tom line. In

2014, Price Water­house Coop­ers (PwC) re­leased their “Cre­at­ing a Men­tally Healthy Work­place, Re­turn on In­vest­ment Anal­y­sis” re­port. Their find­ings showed men­tal ill­ness costs Aus­tralian work­places about

$10.9 bil­lion a year in lost pro­duc­tiv­ity. PwC es­ti­mated that im­ple­ment­ing an ef­fec­tive men­tal health strat­egy can re­sult in a pos­i­tive re­turn on in­vest­ment of $2.30 on av­er­age for ev­ery dol­lar spent by an or­gan­i­sa­tion.

The founder of The Laugh­ter Clinic, co­me­dian Mark McConville, is an ad­vo­cate for the ben­e­fits of a men­tally healthy work­place. With an aca­demic back­ground in sui­cide preven­tion, through stud­ies at Grif­fith Univer­sity, and 19 years of per­form­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, McConville de­liv­ers pre­sen­ta­tions and work­shops to cor­po­rates.

“A mar­ried cou­ple in 2012 changed the course of my life,” says McConville. “Af­ter my show the cou­ple ap­proached me. The wife was cry­ing and thank­ing me, say­ing that her hus­band hadn’t laughed out loud for nearly three years since his post-trau­matic stress di­ag­no­sis.

“I started to look at what hu­mour and laugh­ter does psy­cho­log­i­cally, and how this af­fected de­pres­sion and, by as­so­ci­a­tion, sui­cide. I be­came keen to find a way to pos­i­tively link com­edy to men­tal health.”

The re­sult was McConville’s Laugh­ter Clinic and his mes­sage, Re­mem­ber­ing to Laugh. In­cor­po­rat­ing a com­edy rou­tine within his pre­sen­ta­tions, McConville gets his au­di­ence laugh­ing to­gether. He then en­gages with them to ex­plain the ben­e­fits of what’s hap­pen­ing to them phys­i­cally and psy­cho­log­i­cally at that point.

“I never make any jokes about men­tal health and ill­ness,” says McConville. “I fo­cus on the ben­e­fits of hu­mour for men­tal health, and teach peo­ple how to laugh more while re­duc­ing their ex­po­sure to the known risk fac­tors of sui­ci­dal­ity.”

McConville is not a fan of co­me­di­ans mak­ing fun of men­tal health is­sues. “It takes a very clever comic to be able to talk about men­tal health is­sues on stage in a way that serves to ben­e­fit the au­di­ence,” he says.

But some be­lieve a more head-on ap­proach can be ben­e­fi­cial.

David Granirer is a Canada-based co­me­dian and founder of Stand Up for Men­tal Health, an or­gan­i­sa­tion born from his ex­pe­ri­ence with de­pres­sion. Like McConville, Granirer runs work­shops. How­ever, his ap­proach is teach­ing peo­ple to write and de­liver a standup com­edy act, us­ing their own men­tal health is­sues as ma­te­rial.

“Par­tic­i­pants work on their ma­te­rial weekly and 70 per cent of this is about their men­tal health ex­pe­ri­ences,” Granirer says. “We look at what does and doesn’t work and then we brain­storm mak­ing it funny. Every­one with a men­tal ill­ness has a story, but a lot of those sto­ries in­volve times when they didn’t have con­trol. Here, they have con­trol and can shape their sto­ries to tell them with com­edy.”

Granirer says these sto­ries res­onate with the au­di­ence, forc­ing them to re-eval­u­ate their per­cep­tions and prej­u­dices around men­tal health. It also em­pow­ers them to start con­ver­sa­tions about their own is­sues. “One lady came to a show with her niece, who’d al­ways been told, ‘There’s some­thing wrong with Aunty.’ Af­ter­wards, the woman said to her niece how she’d re­lated to the co­me­dian and the niece fi­nally un­der­stood what was ‘wrong’,” he says.

Granirer has con­ducted work­shops in Aus­tralia. In 2015, Syd­neysider Melissa de Silva was one of his par­tic­i­pants. Her first per­for­mance was at Syd­ney Town Hall where she “joked” about her bipo­lar dis­or­der.

“I think that peo­ple who are con­cerned they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a men­tal health is­sue find it eas­ier to lis­ten to a joke,” de Silva says. “They’re get­ting the in­for­ma­tion and un­der­ly­ing mes­sage of its se­ri­ous­ness, but they don’t feel threat­ened or scared.

“It might be just the thing to make them re­alise that they need to seek help.”

So, how ef­fec­tive can com­edy be when it comes to al­le­vi­at­ing, des­tig­ma­tis­ing and rais­ing aware­ness of men­tal health?

“Com­edy and men­tal health is an area where there’s been lim­ited re­search, so we’re re­ly­ing on anec­dotes,” says Dr Stephen Car­bone, be­yond­blue’s re­search and eval­u­a­tion leader.

While the use of com­edy may have ben­e­fits, Car­bone says there’s a fine line be­tween what’s funny and not. If the au­di­ence are not at­tuned to the com­edy, they could feel of­fended or view the per­for­mance as mock­ing or triv­i­al­is­ing the is­sues.

Sim­i­larly, when peo­ple are laugh­ing at some­one, it at least has the po­ten­tial to fur­ther stig­ma­tise a group or con­di­tion.

“We don’t want to ever be­come dis­mis­sive of men­tal health or lack un­der­stand­ing about the dis­tress, pain and con­se­quences of it,” Car­bone says. “If done in the right way, with the right tone, com­edy may well work. We just have to be very care­ful with how we do it.”

Tim Brad­ford has just com­pleted a week’s com­edy tour through­out Queens­land and New South Wales as a fundraiser for be­yond­blue.

“I’d like to con­tinue these fundrais­ing tours, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral Aus­tralia where men­tal health is­sues are preva­lent and sui­cide rates are hor­ren­dous,” he says. “Some towns haven’t had a com­edy show in three years and I think they could ben­e­fit in mul­ti­ple ways. “Com­edy is very cathar­tic and laugh­ter helped me

• get through some re­ally dark days.”

David Granirer (cen­tre) with Aus­tralian par­tic­i­pants in his Stand Up for Men­tal Health pro­gram.

JO HART­LEY is a free­lance jour­nal­ist.

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