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Houston Comedians Use Art to Destigmatize Mental Illness

Houston Press - 9/18/2017

Despite the ubiquity of mental illness, prevailing social stigmas all too often discourage patients from establishing healthy social structures and receiving the necessary medical care. Misconceptions tout affected persons as everything from lazy, unmotivated, and constantly seeking excuses to malicious, manipulative, and violent. These negative attitudes directly lead to unnecessary difficulty in maintaining employment, romantic relationships, and other facets of daily life. Such harmful perceptions compound further emotional interest to the already-taxing experience of navigating life with compromised mental health.

Houston area-based organizations like the Walk for Mental Health Awareness - Houston and the What It's Like Project do inspiring work to educate the community about the myths and facts of mental illness. They build opportunities encouraging patients to feel safe speaking up, and to nurture compassion in their peers.

Other Houstonians hoping to heal the situation turn to comedy.

"Everyone knows someone in their lives who deals with mental health issues, but not everyone knows someone who's able to articulate what that's like, much less make it funny and relatable," says standup and sketch comedian Joe Folladori.

"Someone without any perspective on bipolar disorder can walk out of a Maria Bamford show both entertained and more empathetic; someone who struggles with their mental health can walk out empowered and inspired," he adds.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16.1 percent of adults over the age of 18 in the United States suffered from a major depressive episode between 2014 and 2015, the most recent time span for which data is available. Another 18.1 percent meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, with 22.8 percent of these instances qualifying as "severe." Those are just two of the most common disorders, but many others go unacknowledged.

The aforementioned Bamford serves as a figurehead for comedy with a consciousness toward mental-health struggles. She suffered a nervous breakdown during a standup set in 2006 and disappeared for months; a fan found her selling clock radios on a Detroit sidewalk. Later that same year, she debuted The Maria Bamford Show on Super Deluxe. There, she chronicled the reality of grappling with bipolar II, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It has become a major theme in her oeuvre ever since. Her recent Netflix series Lady Dynamite wields comedy as a weapon against the internal and external circumstances that make acceptance so frustrating.

While certainly not the only comedian searching for laughter within the darkest morasses of the brain - Sarah Silverman, Chris Gethard, and Avery Edison have all talked about their mental health issues - Bamford pops up the most frequently as the inspiration to an incoming generation of comedic talent devoted to combating mental-illness stigma.

Kathryn Way runs a monthly variety show, So Like Basically, at Rec Room. Her standup act doesn't exclusively focus on her experiences with depression and PTSD - one of her most lung-burning segments in recent memory pays homage to her beloved mother - but she incorporates the ones with the most resonance.

"I want to be honest in my comedy because that's the funniest thing to me. It feels the most appropriate to be completely honest," she says.

She considers it "almost like a type of therapy" to open up to a receptive crowd. Fans greet her after shows to thank her and share their life stories. Many mention their own difficulties surviving the false perceptions affixed to them.

"It's almost like they're being heard for the first time, even if they're not," says Way. "I think it's important for both the people who are hearing it and also for the person talking about it."

To her, sharing laughter provides a more unifying experience than some group therapy sessions with expectations that patients "keep [their] head[s] down [and] cry about it" or similarly somber techniques. She acknowledges their benefit as a treatment option, but prefers facilitating communal healing via her comedy.

"I know that it works, and it's really fucking important for people to hear that and to normalize that and also to show that mental illness is common enough to where you can have things about you that are very funny, very human and real and honest," she says.

Ever since Bamford's webseries debuted, Way has noted improvements in the discussion surrounding mental illness. While stigma continues to hover and harm, she believes people seem more open to talking about diagnoses, seeing therapists, and taking medication than ever before. Her standup bits on the subject continue the conversation, pushing audiences toward overriding the remaining prejudices.

Courtesy of Calan Lambert

Although the comedic medium most often associated with upending mental illness stigma, standup by no means holds a monopoly. Improv and sketch comedy also provide many Houston-area performers with an outlet to explore the relationship between mental health, society, and the self.

Grief Bacon, an improv troupe featuring Calan Lambert and Angela Mayans Lee, specifically addresses the alienation of mental-illness stigma in its act. The duo invites guest monologists to speak about their experiences with depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions; they then perform a show based on details from the story. This is an improv format called "the Armando." [Full Disclosure: The author of this piece has performed as a guest monologist.]

Lambert and Mayans Lee specifically chose the Armando because it allows them to highlight a variety of perspectives and experiences, benefiting both their mission to destigmatize mental illness and their creative inspiration. Once the improv portion of the format begins, they use the straight/absurd dynamic to provocative, thoughtful ends. Mental illness is treated as the normal/"straight" perspective because of its prevalence, whereas the absurdity stems from society's not-so-enlightened views on mental illness.

Flipping the familiar allows them to shed light on the misconceptions people still hold about mental health. It challenges audiences to reflect upon their own prejudices. Do they consider mental illness little more than dramatic immaturity? Do they claim positive mindsets and mani-pedis cure chemical imbalances in the brain? Do they refer to mental illness as "just an excuse"? Not having their views validated forces them to reconsider everything they thought they knew?and they happen to get in a few laughs along the way.

Following shows, guests and attendees alike voice their appreciation for Grief Bacon's synthesis of darkness and deep compassion.

"There are some people that aren't expecting something that starts out so serious, they're not going out to a comedy show to talk about depression, and I particularly enjoy watching those faces go from, 'Uh, what kind of artsy depressing thing did I get myself into?' to just enjoying the comedy by the end of it," says Mayans Lee.

"It's fun to see people squirm at the top of the show and ease into it by the end, because that's exactly what we're trying to do - take something uncomfortable and make it OK."

As for the featured speakers, Lambert says, "So far, we've only had good feedback from our monologists. It's a freeing experience to unload your baggage in front of a group of strangers."

While Grief Bacon attacks mental-illness stigma through anecdotes of personal tragedy, Folladori and Katy Manning's sketch show Please Cheer Up examines the same questions using fiction. Most recently performed this past February at Station Theater, the most piquant segments star comedian Ruth Hirsch as Julie, a woman whose clinical depression confines her to bed, and Manning and Folladori as perky sideline commentators chirping away in judgmental, voyeuristic glee.

The show concludes with the eponymous ditty, a dark, wry ode to a common dismissal of the depressed contrasted with a cheerful, bouncy beat. In the end, it's both a savage takedown of how society views mentally ill women as entertaining spectacles (think Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and Amanda Bynes) and a plea to forego platitudes in favor of frank talks about mental illness.

"I think a lot of folks who live with depression have encountered people who don't understand how it works. So treating those who are on the outside looking in as absurd and making Julie the protagonist made sense," says Manning.

"Everyone sees the humor in Julie pouring cereal and milk straight into her mouth while still lying in bed instead of getting a bowl," she adds. "At the same time, it's clear she is facing some serious internal struggles."

Inspiration for Please Cheer Up came when Folladori grew bored with making "jokes everyone else could have written" in his standup act, he says. He desired to write and perform content with "more of a point" ? something audiences could relate to and leave the theater feeling a little less alienated. Conversing with Manning about mental illness led to the idea of turning an internal running commentary into a literal one. It began life as a normal sketch show before they decided to expand the two most robust narratives and intertwine them together into one larger story about struggle.

Audience responses mirror those given to Way and Grief Bacon. In Houston and elsewhere, comedy fans seek out performances speaking to their truths and ripping into the unhelpful (when not outright toxic) myths that impede their health, or the health of the people they love.

It makes sense. Beyond Otto F. Wahl, Ph.D.'s oft-cited Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness explores a massive body of work regarding the relationship between media depictions of mental illness and damaging attitudes toward people with depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses. This article at Psych Central provides a solid introduction to the research.

Laughter isn't the best medicine. It can dissolve some levels of sadness, but not cure depression. It can relieve tension, but it won't reverse an anxiety disorder. Attending a comedy show, even one with mental illness as a theme, never replaces sessions with a therapist. And that's okay. Laughter still functions beautifully as a salve defanging some of the pain. That's a valuable gift.

As Manning says, "Comedy makes it easier to grapple with the stigma surrounding mental illness. Comedy makes it accessible to those who may be interested in comedy, but not necessarily seek out information on mental illness? it also helps those who are living with mental illness feel less alone when they see something onstage that relates to their lives."

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