Offstage Struggle: The Shocking Link Between Comedy & Mental Health

by Gabriella Albert
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The art of Comedy has been around for decades and provides happiness to listeners all across the world. Whether it is stand-up, through movies or television, or even today’s growing trend of podcasts, comedy is a way to relieve the stressors of everyday life and lighten up our personal troubles while enhancing interpersonal relationships.

Comedy has also shed light in some of the darkest times in history. Not only do comedians provide humor to listeners, but famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud, also stated that comedians often tell jokes as a kind of relief system from their anxiety; and those comedians will agree. The people behind the jokes are seen to be hysterical and successful people whose job is to make others laugh. Will Ferrell, Eddie Murphy, Dave Chappelle, are just a few that come to mind. When watching skits on television, or hearing their stand-up specials, it is easy to infer that the comedians themselves are as happy as they seem on stage and as happy as their jokes make other people. Sadly, this is becoming less frequent. The unexpected link between comedians and mental illness is astonishing and will surprise you.

A study conducted by Oxford University found that comedians may be more inclined to high levels of psychotic personality traits. These traits lead to mental health problems including anxiety, depression and other mental disorders.
It is unclear exactly how many comedians struggle with mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. Many comedians have opened up about their struggles with such disorders. Robin Williams, Sarah Silverstein, Ellen DeGeneres, just to name a few. Marc Maron has also spoken publicly about having severe depression.
“Comedy can often be a defensive posture against depression,” said Deborah Serani, a clinical psychologist who treats performers with depression and other mental health problems.
Serani, the author of the book, “Living With Depression,” said that for many comedians, humor is a “counter-phobic” response to the darkness and sadness they feel. Their intelligence often helps them put a humorous twist on their daily struggles and suffering.
 “They often wear what we call ‘the mask of depression,’ which helps them put on a more acceptable face to the world,” she said. “But behind that mask, there is a terrible struggle going on. There is a stigma about depression and oftentimes the laughter distracts from feelings of weakness.”

Taking a closer look into the life of Robin Williams, who is known as a comedic genius. Williams struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, but many people, even being his biggest fans, were unaware of the struggles he faced behind the humor he provided to so many. He tragically took his life in 2014. Williams knew all too well the struggle of concealing mental health issues behind comedy. He previously stated before his death, “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are.” It seems that being funny is not the same thing as being happy.
The connection between stand-up comedy and a mental state of mania can be observed even while a comedian performs on stage. Stand-up comedians talk very quickly, laugh loud and fast, and jump from topic to topic without skipping a beat. This may seem like part of a rehearsed routine, but researchers are claiming this might be signs of mania instead. These traits are similar to those of someone who suffers from a mania disorder, for example, bipolar disorder.

Some professionals have recently opened up the conversation on this topic. The owner of the Laugh Factory Comedy Club in Los Angeles provides in house counseling and therapy sessions since 2011. One comedian, Paul Gilmartin, has started a podcast about the topic, called Mental Illness Happy Hour.
On the podcast, Gilmartin interviews comedians, as well as friends, artists, and doctors about mental illness, trauma, addiction, and negative thinking.
Kevin Breel is a comedian and activist who also wants to bring awareness to the conversation of depression. He has stepped forward to share his personal story with depression, hoping others who are suffering will realize they are not alone. Around the same time that Robin Williams passed, Breel did a Ted Talk sharing his struggles throughout school and into his adult life.  The Ted Talk, “Confessions of a Depressed Comic” gained great popularity since its release in 2013.

Despite a person you know being the life of the party, or always being happy and humorous, they can still very well be struggling. It is important to look out for signs of depression despite someone’s upbeat personality and be aware that mental illness does not discriminate.
Like Kevin Breel stated, “Let’s keep an eye out for each other, and be ready to support one another if ever needed.
Gabriella Albert

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