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Comics kill stigma, audiences die laughing

June 16, 2010
by Lindsay Barba, Associate Editor
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Stand Up for Mental Health delivers a “lethal and cost-effective” cure for mental illness

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. And with the therapeutic benefits of laughter ranging from enhanced immune system function to lower stress hormones and the release of natural pain-relieving endorphins, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

But can laughter lead to recovery from mental illness? David Granirer, founder and artistic director of Stand Up for Mental Health (SMH), would say “yes.” After all, he’s seen it firsthand.

In 2004, Granirer—a registered counselor, mental health consumer, and professional stand-up comic—was teaching a regular comedy clinic at Langara College in Vancouver. When his students pointed out how therapeutic his classes were, a lightbulb went off in his head: Comedy would be great therapy for his patients, too. From that, the SMH program was born.

“It’s a simple premise,” says Pat Bayes, executive director of SMH. “What starts out as rehabilitation and recovery becomes empowerment and enables students to go out and de-stigmatize, entertain, and educate audiences.”

SMH classes consist of 10 or so “students,” who gather once a week with Granirer to learn how to write and deliver jokes based upon their own mental health journeys. After studying the fundamentals of comedy and performance—including delivery, timing, and stage presence—for three months, students make their comedic debut—performing for the community.

SMH's Vancouver 2010 Comedy Debut Benefit, featuring the Class of 2010 (pictured here with
David Granirer, center), took place May 31 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.

Throughout the year-long program, students nurture, encourage, and challenge each other through the creative process. The graduation showcase marks the end of the program, but also a new beginning for the alumni comics, now armed with a fresh outlook on life. “It’s enabled them to go back into the world with a sense of purpose and an alternate way to deal with tough issues,” Bayes says. “A lot of our students have gone back to school, started new careers, or begun new relationships.”

Graduates may also stay on with the SMH program to mentor incoming comics, perform with new classes, and work on new material.

SMH has trained graduates across Canada and, because of its success, maintains a long waiting list of interested consumers. But the national attention hasn’t just attracted students to Granirer’s classes; it’s also attracted members of the community to SMH’s showcases.

“Most people would never want to come out and listen to a talk about mental illness by a doctor or a head of a mental health agency,” says Bayes “But our branding—‘Are you crazy about comedy?’—gets the general public interested. They come out for a great evening of comedy, but we also slip in the anti-stigma message.”

Because SMH’s comics come from every walk of life, ranging in age from 12 to 78, the program is constantly seeking out new and diverse populations in need of its anti-stigma message. Programs tailored to college students and members of the Canadian military, two groups gravely affected by stigma, are now underway. SMH is also working to develop programs geared toward those in prisons, as well as toward native peoples like the Inuit, whose suicide rate among youth is 10 times higher than the national average.

CBC's Passionate Eye documentary "Cracking Up" focuses on SMH.

“The stories and comedy that they share help break down stigma,” Bayes says. “We say that we’re ‘changing hearts and minds, one laugh at a time.’ Audience members see it’s OK to talk about mental illness and seek out help.” In the fall, SMH will expand to the U.S., bringing its comics to the Campus Day program at the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine. Other stops are being considered, including visits to Harvard, Yale, UCLA, and Dartmouth.