Updated: Jan 7
A couple of years ago, I was asked to be a guest on a TV programme. I was meant to be on the sofa talking about my experience of mental illness. The producer gave me a call the day before. She began by thanking me for my time and said, ‘I’m really excited to talk to you because I’ve never had any mental health’.
I was confused. ‘Sorry? You’ve never had any mental health?’.
Without missing a beat she replied, ‘nope. I’ve never had any mental health, my family have never had mental health, nor have any of my friends. In fact, I don’t know anyone with any mental health!”
Either I was speaking to someone who’d spent their life living under a rock, devoid of human contact like Stig Of The Dump, or this lovely person had fallen foul of the trap so many others have fallen into - thinking that mental health is only about avoiding mental illness.
Now, I don’t want to come across as ‘holier than thou’. Don’t get me wrong, when I was a teenager I knew nothing about mental health. And, being honest, I didn’t care about it either. Why? Well, it was all boring sob stories and depressing statistics. So, I’d probably have thought exactly the same as that producer - that I’d never met anyone with any mental health.
The truth of the matter, though, is that we all have mental health. If you have a brain you have mental health (meaning we’re not so sure about certain presidents, MP’s and reality stars) but I think we can all be fairly certain that most of us have brains.
This is something I didn’t realise when I was 17. I began to develop anorexia. It took years to develop and slowly became my normality, meaning that I didn’t realise it was happening. People around me noticed before I did. It took me a long time to realise that my eating disorder was in control of me rather than the other way round. And, it took me a hell of a lot longer to get treatment.
I was diagnosed as severely clinically anorexic and had to have fast-tracked treatment. I was reluctant to get treatment. That might sound odd, but everyone talked about recovery as ‘taking the anorexia away’, no one talked about giving anything back. I had everything to lose and nothing to gain from treatment.
So, what changed? The answer is simple - my perspective.
Comedy has the rare ability to grip break things down into manageable chunks, making people look at topics through a different lens and explain things. In fact, the word itself is believed to be from the Ancient Greek “kōmos” meaning ‘to reveal’. So, comedy provides a unique opportunity to entertain, inform and educate. But, surely you can’t laugh about mental health?
Over recent years there has been increasing debate about what you can and can’t say. Debates about freedom of speech, cancel-culture and de-platforming have increased. Yet, all of them seem to overlook intent and focus on content.
Personally, I don’t think anything is off-limits for comedy. Anything is fair game when it comes to humour. But you do have to think about the joke tellers relationship to the topic. The intent is a lot more important than content. Is the joke aiming to demean, belittle and bully or is it using humour to engage, analyse and explain?
For example, if I was to joke about how hard it is being a single Canadian mother living in The UK, you would, quite rightly, think that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Yet, if the wonderful Kathryn Ryan jokes about it, the joke comes from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance.
So, Meaningful comedy should always come from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. Which is why I used my experience to use humour to engage people in the topic of eating disorders in a more positive way.
People get worried that I’m joking about anorexia. Nothing could be further from the truth. Comedy is the hook to make people interested. In fact, I think comedy should turn its attention to mental health. After all, what is good mental health if it doesn’t involve smiling, laughing and not taking things too seriously?
So, rather than using mental illness statistics to shock, appal and anger people, we should celebrate good mental health in order to reach a whole new audience and lead with positivity rather than negativity.
That’s why I’ve created a 6-week comedy course aimed at people with mental health difficulties, to teach stand up to help them rebuild their lives. Stand up was integral to my recovery, and now I want to pay that forward and help other people. By building people’s confidence, communication and connection skills I want to help others by literally providing a platform for them to stand up for themselves. Because, with 2020 we’ve all had, I think we’re all going to need any help we can get!
The Speakers Collective is a Social Enterprise. We work together with a shared commitment to challenge stigma, facilitate important conversations and promote learning on a variety of social issues. If you are looking for a speaker for an upcoming event then please do get in contact with Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org.