‘Don’t joke about that’

Last week I attended the Mental Health Service Conference. If you haven’t already checked out my Instagram I highly recommend doing so to see my daily updates from the conference. One of the things I really wanted to speak about but didn’t get a chance to was the inclusion of stand-up comedy. This may seem odd for a conference but the first day was a consumer focused day and in order to celebrate the consumer voice there were a series of acts put on by people with mental illnesses. It was an uplifting show. A stand out was the stand-up stylings of Kylie Harrison (who you can find here). From her opening line she had me hooked. I even wrote it down to share it with you: ‘What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and patient? Both can think they are God. But one gets paid lots of money and the other is a volunteer.’ *ba-dum tish*

Seeing stand-up comedy being performed by people with mental illnesses for those with mental illnesses got me thinking about the discourse surrounding humour in general. In the past I have often been criticised by family members and hell, even therapists, for making jokes about my experiences with mental illness. As a child from a Jewish family, I was raised with self-deprecating humour to the point it is second nature to me. But lately I have been wondering if maybe others are right? Maybe I am doing myself a disservice by making fun of my mental illness, which in reality is a really serious issue in my life. I’ve been having this debate with myself since I saw Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette last year (I implore you to find it on Netflix if you haven’t watched it already). In Nanette, Gadsby talks about her experience as a comedian and how she has come to realise that self-deprecating humour is really a form of self-humiliation…Because people are laughing at you, not with you.

But I think it all comes down to intention. For me, making fun of my pain is a way of surviving it but also a way of connecting with others with similar experiences. I know my audience. I wouldn’t make jokes about my mental health in an environment that I feel unsafe in. Context is very important. For instance, last week at the conference I found myself telling the story of one of my worst paranoid episodes whilst manic. I had people in hysterics as I told the story of me locking myself in the bathroom of a McDonald’s screaming ‘You’ll never catch me alive!’ I enjoyed telling the story in this way. I think it comes down to who/what is the target of the joke. I am not the butt of the that joke, my paranoia and mania is. So it is relatable to other people who experience paranoia and mania and we can all laugh in that moment at something that we could let destroy us.

To return to Hannah Gadsby for a moment, she discussed how turning her life and experiences into jokes had prevented her from being able to tell her story properly, it had stunted her personal growth. I think that is where my life and use of humour is different to hers. As I am not a comedian for a living, I am able to joke about my mental illness and trauma without losing my humanity. For instance, I told that story about the McDonald’s bathroom in all it’s terrifying glory on my Instagram semi-recently. Making jokes about it doesn’t take away from it’s seriousness for me. Yes, it gives me a much welcomed break from the seriousness but joking about it doesn’t prevent me from processing it in anyway. If anything, it helps me to process it. Making light of the experiences shows that the experience itself doesn’t own me.

As you can see  I have reflected a great deal on the use of humour as a coping mechanism in my life. I’ve done this because I feel, as mentally ill people, we are criticised openly for using humour in our lives. Whether or not you would personally choose to use humour to cope or share about your mental illness, I don’t think it is anyone’s place to tell another what is or isn’t okay to joke about. I’m of the opinion that you can joke about anything as long as you’re joke is actually clever and not cheap in nature. But more importantly, to tell a person with a mental illness ‘Don’t joke about that’ is an assault on their autonomy. It undermines their knowledge of themselves, their own limits, boundaries and coping mechanisms. It is not the role of a person without a mental illness to tell us what methods we should use to cope and survive (and even thrive).

I’m about to make myself look like a huge hypocrite. As much as I think no one should be told what they can and can’t joke about I think there are certain guidelines we can follow to ensure our humour about mental illness is more helpful than harmful. As I mentioned earlier the target of the joke is important but the person delivering the joke is also important. Jokes about mental illness are all well and good as long as they are delivered without malice. As long as the joke is not cruel in nature and the mental illness in question is the butt of the joke, not the person living with mental illness. It’s a subtle difference in language. For instance, ‘Isn’t that crazy that parnoia makes her act that way?’ versus ‘Wow, she’s crazy-paranoid.’ Contrary to popular opinion I don’t think you have to have a mental illness to joke about it.  If you don’t have a mental illness and want to start a discourse through humour I believe that you need to be informed about the topic so that A) you can actually make a clever joke that lands, B) your joke may actually teach someone something about the experience of mental illness and C) your joke doesn’t contribute to misinfortmation about the mental illness.

I have no idea how to naturally end this post so I thought I would share a one liner with you to really get my point home. Maria Bamford is one of my heroes; a comedian with Bipolar and writer/creator/star of my favourite show Lady Dynamite. She jokes ‘If you ever think ”I’m a waste of space and I’m a burden” remember, that also describes the Grand Canyon.’


2 thoughts on “‘Don’t joke about that’

  1. Jess, this by far is my most favourite blog post of yours. Articulate, insightful and well informed. I’d like to pitch this to the team 🙂


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