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Using Comedy to Confront Mental Illness and Its Public Stigma

April 20, 2018
David Granirer

For David Granirer, comedy is more than a way to get laughs out of an audience.

As a community college comedy instructor, he noticed how life-changing it could be for someone to take on and conquer the challenge of performing as a stand-up comedian. So, in 2004, Granirer founded Stand Up For Mental Health and began teaching people with mental health issues how to perform stand-up comedy — as a way to help build their confidence as well as reduce public stigma around mental illness. Granirer, who has depression himself, has since taught hundreds of people how to tell their stories through comedy.

Granirer, a certified counselor in Canada, recently received the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada for his work. He has also been named one of 150 Difference Makers in Canadian Mental Health, and received a Life Unlimited Award from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, an Award of Excellence from the National Council for Behavioral Health, and a Champion of Mental Health Award, which recognizes people who have helped advance the mental health agenda in Canada.

On Oct. 25, 2018, he will share his story and perspectives with Psych Congress attendees, as one of the conference’s Featured Speakers. He hopes to bring attendees a mixture of comedy, education, and inspiration. Here, Granirer discusses the path that led him to establish Stand Up For Mental Health, how it helps participants, and his goals and plans for the program.

Q: Can you describe when and how your struggle with mental health issues began?

A: My struggle with mental health issues began when I was about 16 or 17. I was in high school and I actually attempted suicide and ended up in a psychiatric ward for I think about 6-8 weeks.  To me it's amazing—I obviously had depression. Here I am a teenager. I tried to commit suicide, all that kind of stuff, but no one ever caught it. So I wasn't diagnosed until my mid 30s. I went around with untreated, undiagnosed depression for almost 20 years. And then finally in my mid 30s, I was seeing a psychiatrist for therapy and she kept saying, “David, you're depressed.”  And I thought depression was a feeling, so I would say no, “I'm just going through some family issues. I'm not depressed, I'm just sad.” She kept on saying that, so I said “OK fine. I'll try to use the medication that she wants me to take. Nothing will happen, It's just stuff bugging me.”

Well, I went on an antidepressant and all of a sudden it was like “Oh my God, this is what people feel like when they feel good, like people actually want to get out of bed, they actually want to do stuff.” So, to me, it was this huge revelation. Obviously I'm not saying that medication is alright for everyone, but it's certainly alright for me.”

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Q: Did you feel depressed all throughout your 20s? Or was it on and off?

A: I would say it was on and off. But I was constantly depressed. I was a musician at this point and I loved to play the guitar. However, there would be times when I just couldn't play. Sometimes it would last a couple days. Sometimes it was a couple weeks. And I used to think, “Oh, I'm just not feeling any inspiration right now.” But now I look back on it and I think those were depressive episodes. No wonder I couldn't play. So certainly, when I started to feel better I looked back at the past 20 years and I could see so clearly how depression had such a big effect in my life.

Q: Why do you think people didn't recognize it until your mid 30s?

A: I had lots of casual friends from musician circles, but I didn't really have a lot of close friends who would've known it.  I just think they saw me and thought everything was fine.

Q: Did your personal struggles lead you to work, or want to work, in the mental health field?

A: Yes. So just to backtrack a little bit — during my time as a guitar player I ended up getting tendinitis 4 times. That's kind of an occupational hazard, but I got it way worse. So, each time I got tendinitis I was basically isolating myself and sometimes it took a year to get better. And I would just isolate myself. I would watch like 14 hours of TV a day. I wouldn't see anyone, I wouldn't talk to anyone. And the last time it happened I did the usual isolating myself but then all of sudden I got this thing like “Wow, I need to do something. If I want to live I need to do something.” So, I ended up volunteering at the Vancouver Crisis Center. And about 5-6 years later, they hired me as their trainer. I was training crisis line volunteers in suicide prevention and crisis intervention, which I had done myself as a volunteer. I was there for almost 10 years as their trainer.

Q: So that was the beginning of your work in mental health?

A: Yes. And then around that time I got my counselor training and became a counselor. I did some private practice for quite a few years. I never had full caseload. I always had like a third or a half of a caseload, which was fine with me because I was doing other things. I don't do much counseling anymore at all but I'm still busy with Stand Up for Mental Health. I see maybe 2 people on a really intermittent basis.

Q: Did you have any other mental health-related positions?

A: I started Stand Up for Mental Health in 2004.

Q: How did that come about?

A: For about the past 20 years now, I've been teaching the stand-up comedy course at one of the local colleges. It has absolutely nothing to do with mental health. But occasionally, I would see people come through the course and they would have this life-changing experience. And I would think, “Wow, wouldn't it be great to be able to give this to people who wanted the life-changing experience and who also wanted to do comedy.” And so, I figured I'd start in mental health because I had mental health issues and those were essentially my people.

To give an example, I remember one woman who took my community college course and said she had a fear of flying. And the day after our showcase she had to get on a plane. And she said, “My fear was gone. I felt like once I'd done stand-up comedy, I could do anything.” And that's what made me think, “Wow, this would be great to give to other people.”

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Q: How did you become the comedy teacher at the community college? Had you done comedy yourself as well?

A: Yes. I was doing comedy for about 2 years. It was kind of a fluke. Someone who was a board member at the crisis center worked at this college and he came to me one day and he said, “Listen, we just fired our comedy instructor because he didn't show up to class. Are you interested?”  And I said, “Sure,” and that's how it all started.

Q: What are your main goals for Stand Up for Mental Health?

A: Well, my main goal is to train as many folks as I can who want to do stand-up comedy in order to build their confidence and also reduce public stigma around mental health.

Q: Do you have an idea of how many people you have trained?

A: I've run the class in over 50 cities in Canada, the US, and Australia. So, I'm guessing around 350-400 people.

Q: Have you seen a lot of them go on to do stand-up comedy?

A: No. There’s a couple. But I think that's not why people are taking the program. A lot of them are taking the program just because they want to challenge themselves and do something different. And they also want to be able to see the humor in their lives. Because let's face it: when you're dealing with a mental health condition there's also not a lot of humor in that.

Q: How would say clinicians can use comedy in the care of their patients? If a clinician hasn't been trained by you, but they want to use this concept, is there anything you can tell them they can do in therapy?

A: Well, first of all, they shouldn't try to be stand-up comics in their work with clients. But, sometimes they can just ask the question “So, here we are, we've talked about x, y, and z, so can you see the humor in that? Do you see anything funny and if so, what is it?” And so, you're not necessarily writing stand-up comedy, but I think sometimes it helps a little bit to say, “Well, you know what's funny is that….”

The other thing I think clinicians can do is ask people, “So, what do you do to get a laugh in the course of your life?” Because we ask people, “What do you do for stress management?” and “What do you do for exercise?” And I think humor and laughing is on par with those things in terms of helping to recover.

Q: What kind of program will you do at Psych Congress?

A: I'm just speaking myself. My presentation will be a combination of comedy and education and inspiration.

Q: Have you ever had anybody tell you they don't think comedy has a place in mental health, that you're combining something too fun with something serious? And what would you say to somebody who had that opinion?

A: No one's really told me that. I've had a lot of support from both clinicians and people with mental health conditions. I think it's an idea whose time has come. And people understand the value of having humor in your life.

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Q: Do you think, as a society, we are making progress in removing the stigma associated with mental illness?

A. Yes, I think we're making progress in removing the stigma surrounding mental illness. I think the fact that we're talking about it more is a real big step. I still think there's quite a bit of stigma left to cope with. But it's certainly better than it was 10 years ago.

Q: Is there anything you can point to, say, in the last 10 years that has helped remove some of that stigma?

A: Well, I like to think that Stand Up for Mental Health has helped. But I also think that we're having situations where more people are out in the public telling their stories. And that's what’s powerful for people. What I've understood in terms of the research is it says that taking out ads on TV or the internet is not very effective. The effective thing is when people get to interact with somebody that has a mental health condition. And I think that's happening a lot more these days in terms of educating people.

Q: Is there anything else that you think needs to happen to continue to lessen the stigma?

A: Once again, I think as much engagement as possible between people who have the condition and people who don't.

Q: As far as your Psych Congress presentation, is there a main message that you're hoping the attendees will take away that we haven't talked about yet?

A: I guess part of the message is that folks with a mental health condition have way more resources than we give them credit for. And I think sometimes it helps the clinicians to be able to spot that in people and encourage them and help them to build their strengths, and I think humor is a strength.

One of the comics I worked with, she has schizophrenia and one of her really difficult things to do was riding public transit because she'd be on transit and her voices would be telling her, “Everyone's looking at you. They think you're a freak and something's wrong with you.” Well, after she did Stand Up for Mental Health and developed her sense of humor, she said the next time she got on a bus she started joking around with people and it was a great bus ride. So here she was, she had a skill that leveled the playing field between her and these so-called scary, normal people. And so, it was through, rather than focusing on what was wrong with her, it was focusing on what was right with her and helping bring it out.

And I would say too that one of the things I think that makes my program a success is that people aren't coming because there's something wrong with them. They're coming because there's something right with them and that's a whole different way of doing things.

Q: Do you have any new projects on the horizon?

A: In 2005, there was a documentary made on Stand Up for Mental Health and it was really a great documentary, a 45-minute documentary. The director of that documentary has decided that she wants to turn it into a feature-length documentary, which is 90 minutes long, and include footage from back in 2005, but also follow the comics and see where they are now. So, I'm really excited about that documentary and she's going to be submitting it to all sorts of film festivals like Hot Docs [Canadian International Documentary Festival] and Sundance [Film Festival]. So hopefully that'll create more recognition for the program and allow me to help more people.

—Terri Airov

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