In her 2019 stand-up special, “The great Depressioncomedian (and Peabody native) Gary Gulman says his aversion to writing essays has saved his life more than once. "Because every time I thought about suicide, I thought, 'You have to leave a note,'" he says. "I'm not going to spend the last hour of my life doing something I've always feared."
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In recent years, I've become connoisseur of a certain type of comedy that is frankly about mental health. It happened by accident. Through years of battling anxiety and depression and seeking relief, I kept finding it in the same place: from comedians.
For some time now, I have been publicly expressing my gratitude. Because beyond the solace these comedians brought to my own rambunctious psyche, as a group they created an oasis in a society with stubbornly retrograde attitudes about mental health. By talking often in detail about depression and other mental illnesses, by getting rid of the all-too-common stigma and shame surrounding mental illness, and by fearlessly discussing some of the darkest aspects of what it's like to have a mental illness, we are doing an act revolutionary service to public health. And it happens to be hilarious.
EVEN THOUGH I GROW UP in a household with two highly educated parents (one of whom is a doctor!), we don't really talk about mental health. This is unfortunately all too common in this country, at home and at school. As of 2019, more than half of schools in the United States are stilllacked a mandatory curriculum of "mental education". EACLU report2019 found that nationwide, "14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker".
And yet, few disorders are so widespread.According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect an estimated 40 million adults each year, while another 16 million Americans suffer from major depressive disorder. The American Psychological Associationreportsthat approximately one in five children in the United States experience a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder annually, yet only about 20% of them are seen by a mental health professional.
In addition to the alarming gulf between how often mental illness occurs and how often people actually receive treatment,Patrick Corrigan, a psychology professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology who researches mental health stigma, says popular attitudes about mental illness have worsened in recent decades. Many people are under the false impression that those of us with mental illness are incapable of holding down a job or finishing school, or that we are morally weak and should be able to manage, or that we are dangerous and perpetually on the verge of violence. 🇧🇷
I can speak from experience about the combined effect of this pernicious silence and stigma. When I faced my first storms of panic and depression in college and in my 20s, my symptoms were exacerbated by additional burdens of loneliness, confusion, and the nagging (if inaccurate) feeling that there was something profoundly wrong with me. Relying heavily on self-invented strategies (ignoring my symptoms, distracting myself with workaholism, accepting anxious or depressive tendencies as unchanging parts of my personality), I gritted my teeth and survived my 20s. But when I turned 30, I fell.
For years, I wasted hours, and sometimes entire days, accumulating negative thoughts about my health, my future, my safety, and my relationships. Sometimes things got so bad that he couldn't work for weeks; At a particularly low point, I missed a close friend's wedding. In early 2017, when my reserves of hope and energy were dwindling, I realized that I really needed help and signed up for therapy with no end date.
In the years that followed, I continued on a slow but successful healing journey. He attended biweekly therapy sessions. I read manyself-help books🇧🇷 I stopped drinking alcohol and started consciously taking breaks from work to relax and recharge. I tried meditation andyoga🇧🇷 I did my best to maintain healthy sleep and exercise regimens.
And I watched and read a lot of comedy.
WHEN I REALIZED that people who made a living out of humor were talking about the things I was going through, I felt a rush of relief and comfort. At certain times, when I couldn't muster the energy or focus to do much else, I could sit down and read a memoir, like Marc Maron's book, “trying normal”, which begins with the dedication, “To all who successfully challenge their spinning”.
Though stand-up has long trafficked taboos—think Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or Joan Rivers—I was fortunate that my struggles coincided with a golden age of mental health comedy. In recent years, comedian and creator and star of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" Rachel Bloom has brought the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder to life in vivid detail in her book "I want to be where normal people are” and blessed the world with the musical number “Antidepressants are not as important🇧🇷 Former "Saturday Night Live" star Darrell Hammond, both in hismemoryand the recent documentary “cracked”, he spoke about the long-repressed childhood trauma that wreaked havoc on his adult life. Gary Gulman released an entire stand-up special dedicated to depression. At one point, he laughs at the preposterous idea that the side effects of antidepressants are somehow worse than the depression itself. "Impotence?" he says in a moment. "Oh yeah, I was having a lot of sex in the fetal position."
Along the way, I collected other memorable phrases and descriptions. In the minidocumentary "laughing matter”, says writer Sara Benincasa, “a panic attack is basically the opposite of an orgasm”. In his book, Maron perfectly describes what it's like to be a relentless catastrophist. “The problem is, I'm always preparing for and reacting to the horrors of what my brain is concocting, living as if every potential terror and defeat is already happening, because in my head, it always is,” he writes. 🇧🇷 To this day I have not found a more accurate and succinct description of depression than what Sarah Silverman says in her memoirs: “the wettest bed”: “I felt nostalgic, but I was at home.”
While some focused on the symptoms of mental illness, others focused on the treatments. Comedian Chris Gethard's therapist Barb plays a larger role in his HBO special, "professional suicide”, that his parents or wife; Gulman goes a step further in "The Great Depresh" by taking his viewers into a real conversation with his psychiatrist. In your memories"eager drink”, the late actress and comedian Carrie Fisher discusses her experience with electroconvulsive therapy and offers a list of “people I share electrocompanionship with”, including Judy Garland, Yves St. Laurent and Ernest Hemingway.
Perhaps the boldest of this group are those who speak out about the most stigmatized of mental health treatments: hospitalization. At one point in his mini-special, “psychiatric ward”, Maria Bamford remembers telling a friend: “If I ever start talking too fast about wanting to get in touch with the Pope or some other ethical authority, put me in a purple van and take me to a dog daycare center, because I need to get shipped out for the weekend.
It wasn't just education and validation that these comedians provided; in some cases, I got a tangible boost in my healing process. In the fall of 2019, when I was considering starting antidepressants (spoiler alert: I did, and it was a game changer), I watched Gethard's "Career Suicide," in which the writer-comedian took aim at one of my biggest fears. : that the medication somehow suppressed my creativity or fundamentally altered my personality. At one point, Gethard describes how he was worried about the effect the medication might have on his ability to write and tell jokes, and how much time he was wasting on these unfounded fears. "Because I'm happy to say that, at least in my case, I'm significantly [expletive] more fun on medication."
He goes on to berate anyone who romanticizes the idea that pain and suffering are essential to great art. "Know what I would love?" he says. "I would love to see Kurt Cobain still alive, putting out light rock [shit] albums," he says. "I would love to see Kurt Cobain release an exclusive Starbucks Christmas album in December."
TO BETTER APPRECIATE the silence that permeates American life around mental illness, it helps to understand just how prevalent it is. In addition to the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from severe anxiety or depressive disorders,7.7 million Americansexperience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 2.3 million have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and2.2 million are affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder🇧🇷 From the CDC comesthis alarming statistic: “In 2019, 12 million adult Americans have seriously considered suicide, 3.5 million have planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million have attempted suicide.” It's almost certain that someone you know, in fact probably several people, struggles with some form of mental illness. Still, it's still generally taboo to talk about it at work, on a date, at a family gathering, and in most other social situations.
And so, in recent years, I have watched with appreciation as certain segments of society have become more open about these issues. I'm thinking of athletes likeMichael Phelpsykevin amoryNaomi OsakaOutroysimone bile, who had outstanding moments when they prioritized or discussed mental health. On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen hassharedwhich has spent “30 years in analysis”. As of 2018, attorney, Afghan War Veteran, and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason KanderWithdrew from Kansas City mayoral raceso you can focus on treating your depression and PTSD.
I'm not saying the comedy world is a mental health utopia. Not all comedians have won the battle with their demons. I'm thinking of Robin Williams and Chris Farley and John Belushi and so many other deeply funny people that we lost early. And certainly the comedy world has had its share of men whocausedsuffering and trauma in others. (Looking at you Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby.)
But still, no public figure or profession rivals comedians for speaking out about mental illness and helping to undermine our public denial. And perhaps it makes sense for these people to lead the way, given the tendency to aggressively mine their own experiences as material and aim for things most of us are afraid to talk about. In the 2019 documentary “die laughingsays Australian comedian Jim Jefferies, "Perhaps comedy is labeled 'We're all manic-depressive,' because that's the only occupation where you can constantly talk about being a manic-depressive."
ON A SCIENTIFIC LEVEL, laughter is simply good for us. It may not be the "best medicine" as the old saying goes, but it is medicinal. “We know biochemically that it increases the level of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, all the things that produce joy in the human brain,” Peter Sheras, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Virginia, told me. He describes laughter as a "biological enhancement" process.
And in a society where illness is shrouded in secrecy and shame, there is additional power. When I spoke with John Moe, author of "The hilarious world of depression, "podcast host"depression mode”, and an outspoken advocate of mental health awareness, described what happens when you look at, say, Patton Oswalt stand-up.routineabout shopping in a supermarket at 11 am. m. on a Tuesday morning and becoming "effortlessly, gleefully suicidal" in the Lean Cuisine aisle as Toto's "Africa" plays from the speakers. When the sufferer hears this, Moe says, "suddenly they're not alone anymore, and they're not unusual anymore, and suddenly they're part of a team, and other people have been through this." Humans know on an innate level that it's safer to be with a group, he says. “And then what do they do after keeping it all these years? They can finally exhale in relief, and that exhalation comes out as a laugh."
I have never been further from a laugh, or even a smile, than when I was in the midst of a panic attack or deep depression. The symptoms of mental illness are, to say the least, suffocatingly severe. To be mentally ill is to obsess over the least funny things imaginable: death, illness, shame, guilt, self-loathing, vivid images of horrible things happening to me or my loved ones. The slightest drop in the plane means I'm headed for a fiery death. A pause before a returned text means my friend has decided to cut me off permanently. After a while of hypervigilance against the ever-present doom, my body's energy wanes and fear gives way to apathy, immobility, and hopelessness. I'm reminded of the line about it in "The Great Depresh": "When I'm sane, a sunset is a justification for existence," says Gulman. "And when I'm sad, I look at the sunset and think, 'Yeah, you gave up too'."
Laughing at these things helps us to see beyond the toxic delusions that mental illness creates.
AFTER YEARS OF psychological turmoil, I feel like I've finally reached cruising altitude. While I can withstand the occasional bout of anxiety or mild depression, I am not currently operating in crisis mode and haven't been for some time. Instead of desperately fighting negative thoughts minute by minute, I spend my days focused on work tasks, running errands, or savoring the joys of my hobbies: riding my bike, cooking dinner for my girlfriend, snuggling with my friends. , cats while reading. a book. Because of this relatively recent progress, when I watch a comedy special or read a comedian's book, I'm looking for a laugh rather than a lifeline.
But I'm also clear-eyed about what awaits me on my continued journey. And for that I must also thank the comedians. At the end of "Career Suicide", Chris Gethard tells that he still pops pills every morning and night and still gets depressed quite often, but "nine times out of 10, when it hits now, I can deal with my depression like everyone else. we deal with a cold." Toward the end of his memoir, Darrell Hammond mentions several ways his life has improved: he's not in prison or having nightmares or cutting himself or taking heavy medication. Still, he says, "no one is really free of their baggage." She adds, "I still wear black a lot, but I'm thinking of going clothes shopping soon."
Perhaps one day the discussion of mental suffering will be so commonplace that it no longer seems risky, and comedians will look for other, edgier topics. And if that day comes, I'll have saved a lot of jokes to laugh at. Like that moment on the Neal Brennan stand-up special, “3 microphones”, when he mentions that he went to a psychiatrist and a psychologist. He then stops to say, "If you can't tell the difference, congratulations: you're having a great life."
If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. is also availablethe crisis text line- Send HELLO to 741741. For more information on general mental health treatment options, please visit:nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Tratamientos.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence. He is working on a true crime book about prescription drug trafficking for Steerforth Press.