Funny in the head?

Is it okay to laugh about mental health difficulty? Award-winning blogger Seaneen Molloy thinks so

When Rangers’ legendary goalkeeper Andy Goram went public that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, fans greeted this revelation with characteristic sensitivity. As he walked onto the pitch, a chant came from the stalls: Two Andy Gorams! There’s only two Andy Gorams…

You might find that tasteless and insensitive. You may have ground your teeth at the common misconception that multiple personalities and schizophrenia are one and the same. Me, I think it’s funny. Given the tendency for people to quietly turn the other way when someone mentions a mental health problem, I’m glad that his disclosure was acknowledged. (A collective clearing of the throat wouldn’t have been as amusing). I believe that the fans were being good-natured, if factually inaccurate.

Had the intent been malicious, I would have found it less amusing. The intent is the crux. Some of the best comedy can be drawn from the darkest of subjects. Mental health difficulty causes suffering to those living with it, but hand-wringing earnestness may only serve to make it more of a taboo. It is a weighty, difficult topic – could making light of it be the way to talking about it more openly?

Laugh if you’ve been there

A lot of stigma exists when it comes to mental health. It’s fair to worry that making jokes about mental illness just reinforces that stigma. High-profile campaigns like Time to Change often tackle the mainstream media for their use of language. The Sun, for example, is famous for its “Schizo” and “Nutter” headlines. I don’t think they’re gently ribbing the subject of the piece. They’re just being lazy and offensive. There is a difference.

Some think that certain topics should be off-the-menu for comic fodder. The menu is subject to change, of course. In the 1970s it was acceptable to make racist jokes. Now such things are effectively banned from being said in public. Scottish comedian (and Sun columnist, ho-hum) Frankie Boyle was recently lambasted for making jokes about disability. But people like Liz Carr and Mat Fraser make a career out of joking about disability.

The difference that while Carr and Fraser are disabled people making jokes about the experience of being disabled, Boyle is a non-disabled person pointing at disabled people and saying they’re funny.

Maybe it’s okay to laugh at the dark side, but only if you’ve been there. Without insight into mental health problems, the line between poking fun and outright ridicule can dissolve. There has been a movement in recent years to reclaim some of the less-lovely terms applied to people with mental health problems. There’s, Bonkersfest and Mad Pride, which claim to ‘celebrate creativity and promote good mental health’. On the internet, some mental health bloggers refer to themselves as, ‘Mentalists’. It could be viewed as an elaborate defence mechanism, or it could be taken with the tongue firmly lodged in the cheek. There’s a difference between referring to yourself as mad and somebody shouting it at you in the street.

Humor and coping

Personally, I’ve used humour as a way of coping, and as way to teach. In May, I found myself on stage performing at a night called, ‘Warning: May Contain Nuts’. It was a two hour tour de farce which contained routines about suicide, psychosis and psychiatrists. The performers – and some of the audience – were people who had experienced mental health difficulties. And the laughter that rose from them was not of pity, nor discomfort, but liberation. Laughter can be a powerfully uniting force.

Many of us who have lived with mental health problems are accustomed to the averted gaze of others, the distress it causes, the occasional terror and loneliness of it all. Like all life experiences, there are moments of pathos, seconds of silliness. I recall waking up, sticky and sad after a suicide attempt, to a text from my friend reading, ‘The next time you don’t want to come to the pub with us, a phone call will do’. It raised my first genuine smile in a year. And seeing the funny side – however grim it was – also helped those who cared about me to cope. It wasn’t judgemental. It was an expression of solidarity, and made it easier to talk about.

Sometimes, the rational response is to laugh – or else you might go mad.

This editorial first appeared in the Autumn 2010 edition of One in Four magazine

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