MERRILLVILLE — To break the stigma of mental illness, maybe we need to laugh about it.
That was the suggestion of a stand-up comedian who spoke at a mental health awareness event Wednesday in Northwest Indiana.
David Granirer, who has depression, teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues, helping them turn their most painful moments into comedy gold.
“We have to be able to talk about these things,” said Granirer, who is also a counselor and lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Joking about this stuff makes it easier to talk about.”
Granirer was the keynote speaker at a luncheon held by Gary-based Edgewater Behavioral Health Services to mark Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental illness is an issue that touches most, if not all, people in this country. It is the leading cause of disability in the U.S., affecting an estimated 1 in 4 Americans in a given year.
So the need is great, but it’s also not being met. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has given Indiana’s public mental health care system a “D” rating. Meanwhile, the federal government has designated Gary and the low-income population of northwest Lake County as having shortages of mental health providers.
Bringing the disease out of the shadows just might make a difference, Granirer argued. He noted that people in his neighborhood recently protested a planned mental health clinic. But stopping the stigma will require discussing it.
Through his organization, Stand Up for Mental Health, Granirer gives stand-up comedy boot camps to people with mental illnesses, from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to depression. Some of his trainees have gone on to perform hundreds of shows; others have entered other creative fields.
Some of the most painful experiences in the life of a person with a mental illness can make for excellent comedic material, he said. He gave an example: a guy who was committed for imagining he was Jesus Christ ending up in a room with a man who thought he was Satan.
“What a great way to cope: write some jokes,” Granirer said.
The comedians from Stand Up for Mental Health riff on their medications, their therapy, their drug use. One woman had a bit about a failed suicide attempt. The punchline? “I learned I can tie a knot to save my life,” she said.
Granirer encouraged clinicians to show YouTube videos of his trainees to their patients, to show them recovery is possible.
“We just want to be treated like anyone else,” he said. “We want people to see us as humanbeings who have other lives, who are creative, intelligent.”