We're All Mad Here: Fighting Stigma Through Humor

Last year in Canada, there were two nation-wide campaigns to fight mental health stigma.

The first focused on the financial cost of mental health. It was launched by one of our major banks, and had a slick advertising campaign full of dark colours and statistics. There were multi-page discussions in the national newspapers, as well as multiple bus shelter advertisements driving home the point: Mental illness is a cost to the Canadian economy.

The other, Stand Up For Mental Health, was launched by actual people with mental health conditions. The program is open to people with a variety of diagnoses, and trains them to become stand-up comics, making jokes and wise-cracks about the experience of being mentally ill, as well as other aspects of the lives of the comics. Last year, Stand Up for Mental Health did a cross-country tour to university campuses in the hopes of raising enough awareness to get a Pepsi Refresh Grant so they could get more funding for their work.

I encountered both of these programs at university.

I take a bus, so I couldn’t help but be reminded every day I went to campus that “Mental illness costs Canada $33B Annually.” By the second week I wanted to get a spray paint can or a marker or a post-it note to scrawl STIGMA across the ad. Mental illness stigma costs the economy a lot of money annually. It’s not that I have the Crazy that makes it difficult for me to go in to work some mornings, it’s that I’m not allowed to just tell my employers that my Crazy is being especially bad right now and ask to maybe work out some accommodations around that. Crazy is scary. Putting up a black and white gloomy photo and talking about the cost to the economy isn’t really fighting the “crazy is scary” stigma.

What does fight that stigma is people who have mental health conditions getting the opportunity to talk—either seriously or jokingly—about what that involves. In the cross-Canada campaign last year, people got the opportunity to see the documentary Cracking Up, which follows one graduating class from SUMH from their first tentative attempts at public speaking to a sold-out show that brought down the house in Vancouver. Along the way it shows how people with mental health conditions are all different, rather than a faceless nameless hoard of Scary Mad Folks in the Attic. It also showed how dangerous the stigma against people with mental health conditions are, as many of the successful comedians also struggled to keep jobs and maintain their families. Some of this is because of the difficulties in maintaining these relationships while struggling with a difficult or complicated diagnosis, but some of it was obviously caused by other people’s fear of Crazies.

What I really like about SUMH is that it uses humor to break through stereotypes and stigma. People who have tried to kill themselves, people who hear voices, people with OCD, they’re making jokes that reflect their actual lived experiences rather than some pop-culture version of it. I’ve listened to a lot of SUMH comedians, and none of them have gone for the cheap laughs of “I’m not OCD, I’m CDO, because it has to be in alphabetical order!” or “I do what my rice krispies tell me to.” They make jokes like one I heard in Halifax, which touches on suicide attempts:

“I decided to kill myself, so I took a whole bottle of pain killers. It didn’t work, obviously, but man, I didn’t get a headache for months. … My husband was so pleased!” (This, of course, plays off the “not tonight dear, I have a headache” idea about women and sex.)

SUMH also work to challenge people on why they’re so afraid of people with mental health conditions. As the director, David Granirer, points out in his opening monologue, 95% of crimes are committed by the sane. “So really, we’re way more afraid of you than you are of us!”

Both of these programs want to end workplace stigma against people with mental health conditions. By focusing on the financial cost, rather than the cost to people, the economic-based advertising campaign missed its mark entirely. They continue to show mental health conditions as a problem to be solved, either by throwing money at it or by making it go away.

Stand Up for Mental Health and Cracking Up want to get mental health conditions to a neutral place. Granirer describes it as the place where coming in to work and saying “Oh, the voices in my head are a bit loud this morning” should be as neutral as saying “Oh, I’ve got a terrible cold and I just need an easy day this morning”.

Further Reading:

Previously: We’re All Mad here: Intake Interview, The Transcontinental Disability Choir: Art Imitating Life Imitating Art

by Anna Pearce
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13 Comments Have Been Posted

Such an overlooked issue - thanks for writing

I really enjoyed this article. In the UK we've just had a successful campaign on TV which discusses mental health in the workplace, though it is still very stigmatised, which I myself have faced as a depressive. We are hard enough on ourselves, without other people putting pressure on us too.

Canadian society sounds like it's tackling the problem of stigma from two angles at the same time, which is great. I know the bank campaign seems sort of heartless, but if it gets people talking then it still gets results. If financial loss is what its takes for companies to educate themselves on mental health, I see that as a positive thing (in a roundabout way).

The comedy campaign also sounds really impressive. Humour is one of the best ways to break down barriers and get people to get over their own prejudices.

Polly x

UK vs Canada?

Yeah, I can see how the bank campaign is useful from a business sense, but it really rubbed me the wrong way.

Generally speaking, as someone who worked both in the UK and in Canada, I found that mental health conditions were taken more seriously and it was somewhat more acceptable to take time off for them in the UK, but this may have been just my workplaces rather than any actual difference in attitude. What is your impression?

The problem with the bank one

The problem with the bank one is that it says to me "Great, not only am I a burden on the people around me, I'm a burden on the entire country." (I'm not saying that mental health patients are a burden on their family, I'm saying that at times I've felt like I was)

Ads like that reinforce the stigma of mental illness.

I am totally creeping on

I am totally creeping on SUMH's website to see if there's a way for me to get involved now. I remember reading about them when you last wrote on them, and I found out they do already have a branch, as it were, in my city. Things to do...

SUMH in YOUR area!

I'm debating if I have time to get involved this year. I suspect not, but I may instead indulge myself to going to more of their shows.

I want them to set up a

I want them to set up a branch in my city here in the USA!

Also, does 'Welcome to Asperger King, your extremely specific order is out [mumble mumble]' count as a cheap laugh?

I'm not sure!

<p>I think there are similar programs in the US. When I was looking for SUMH videos I found some other comics who do similar work. It's worth checking into it!</p>

Thanks, N!

<p>I think I fixed it.</p>

thank you

I loved this article. I agree with you that the second public awareness campaign was way better because it empowered people with mental illnesses and let them speak for themselves.

This was really sad when I

This was really sad when I read it. Especially the joke the comedian made. Yeah, it may seem funny at first, but then when you realize it actually happened, it's really sad. I think it's great that they're taking a stand though and they're showing everything that yes, they are different, but they do matter. Keep up the good work guys & girls!

Chooo Choooo

<p><strong>We call it 'riding the crazy train' here. As in, no, can't do it today, I am on my crazy train. Pass the xanax, perhaps I'll be up to it tomorrow. Or, 'Why did Mom get so mad?' 'Oh, she's riding the crazy train this afternoon. Just let her rest a little.' And yes. We laugh about it. It's my damn crazy train and I can laugh if I want to.</strong></p>

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