Comics prove laughter really is the best medicine when it comes to mental illness

JOKING about mental illness may not seem the most obvious way of breaking down taboos and tackling discrimination.

But that is exactly what a group of comedians are hoping to achieve as Scotland battles to reduce the stigma around a problem which affects a quarter of the population.

Yesterday saw the launch of Scotland's first Mental Health Arts and Film Festival.

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As well as films, debates and exhibitions, comedians are using humour to address what is still a very sensitive issue despite being such a massive problem.

It is hoped that by doing so they can bring in a new audience and help to change attitudes to mental illness.

While humour is now being used to address mental illness, many top comedians have suffered their own very personal experiences of the problem.

Entertainers including Stephen Fry and the late Spike Milligan have suffered depression while maintaining high-profile careers.

Yesterday Raymond Mearns, one of the comedians taking part in the festival, said he thought comedy would make people listen to a subject they would otherwise ignore.

"It helps to add a wee bit of sugar to the medicine," he said. "If you ask someone to listen to a talk about depression, they will just say, 'That is too boring'.

"But if there is a bit of humour, a bit of comedy, people will be more willing to sit up and take notice.

"I think using comedy is a fantastic idea and I really believe in this project."

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Mr Mearns, star of BBC Scotland sitcom Legit, also appears in a new DVD which is being launched at the festival, using humour to tell the story of a man's battle against stress.

It has been produced by the STEPS primary care mental-health team at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Mr Mearns said he had been inspired to take part to raise awareness of what was now a major issue: "I think life today is designed to drive us all mental. We are surrounded by all these labour-saving devices, but nobody has time for themselves."

Although he has not had personal experience of mental illness, the comedian said he knew people who had.

"I have known people who have suffered from depression. I don't think I have been depressed. I am just miserable. I have one of these faces that says 'do not approach'."

One celebrity who has suffered mental illness is the Edinburgh-born TV presenter Gail Porter, who helped launch the event. She has suffered anorexia and manic depression, which led to her once attempting suicide.

But the mother of one said humour and laughing at herself had helped her cope with her own problems.

"I still have the odd day when I find it difficult to get out of bed," Ms Porter said. "But that's just because I am lazy." She added: "One in four of us will suffer from a mental illness, and it's not embarrassing if you talk about it."

Suzie Vestri, acting director of the campaign group See Me - which aims to tackle the stigma surrounding mental illness and helped organise the festival - said: "In the past, people have felt that humour is a way of poking fun at people in a negative way.

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"What is happening how is that we are getting people laughing with people, rather than at them."

Lee Kniston, the director of the festival, which has also involved the Mental Health Foundation and Glasgow health board, said humour was a good way of reaching men and young people.

He said: "For so long, humour was used to undermine and humiliate people with mental-health problems as figures of fun. Now it is helping people address these issues, making it acceptable to talk about them."

The festival runs until 19 October.


BEING a comedian is not always funny. Many of the UK's greatest comedy stars have battled with mental illness.

• STEPHEN FRY is among those to speak openly about his mental health problems. In 1995, he attempted suicide after walking out of the West End play Cellmates. Not knowing how to deal with how he was feeling, he fled the country. He was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression.

Fry had never heard of bipolar before but said the diagnosis helped explain "the massive highs and miserable lows" he had lived with during his life.

• TONY SLATTERY, who found fame in TV show Whose Line is it Anyway?, has suffered bipolar disorder and faced a very public downward spiral into depression, suffering a serious breakdown.

Speaking about his experience, he said: "I rented a huge warehouse by the River Thames. I just stayed in there on my own, didn't open the mail or answer the phone for months and months and months. I was just in a pool of despair and mania."

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In one incident, he started throwing electronic equipment into the Thames while the bemused river police looked on. Despite this, he has said he would not choose to be rid of bipolar as it was part of who he was.

• SPIKE MILLIGAN faced a life-long battle with manic depression, which resulted in ten breakdowns. One of these was in October 1990 when he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital after the death of his mother.

Many of his problems seemed to stem from the shell-shock he suffered in the Second World War.

Speaking about his depression, he said: "I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalised and for deep narcosis [sleep]. I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much.

"Something has happened to me; this vital spark has stopped burning"

• PETER COOK's comic genius was hindered by his alcohol dependency and depression. After a series of television hits and his successful partnership with Dudley Moore, Cook's drinking began to have an impact on his work and personal life.

His first wife, Wendy, the mother of his two children, has spoken of her sorrow at how alcoholism and depression destroyed his talent. She regretted not being able to help her husband when he began to drift into heavy drinking.

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