“There are certain types of weather that are better for depressives,” the comedian Aparna Nancherla says in a 2016 stand-up special. “I love it when it rains. It reminds me of why I got into the whole sad game, you know? . . . Whenever it’s pouring outside, as a sad person you can turn to any random optimist on the street and just be like ‘Hey! You’re in my world now.’”
In January 2019, the comedian and TV writer Jaboukie Young-White tweeted, “How are people out here with no therapy not taking any prescribed or illicit drugs just raw dogging reality[?]” A few months later, he followed up with: “Yall ever drink an iced coffee so strong that for like 4 minutes you have hope[?]”
In his 2019 stand-up special, “The Great Depresh,” the comedian (and Peabody native) Gary Gulman says that his aversion to writing essays has saved his life more than once. “Because any time I’ve contemplated suicide, I’ve thought, ‘You gotta leave a note,’” he says. “I’m not spending the last hour of my life doing something I’ve dreaded throughout it.”
Over the last few years, I’ve become a connoisseur of a particular kind of comedy that deals frankly with mental health. It happened by accident. Over years of struggling with anxiety and depression and searching for relief, I kept finding it in the same place: from comedians.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to publicly express my gratitude. Because beyond the comfort these comedians have brought to my own unruly psyche, they have, as a group, created an oasis in a society with stubbornly retrograde attitudes about mental health. By frequently talking about depression and other mental ailments in detail, by unburdening themselves of the all-too-common stigma and shame around mental illness, and by fearlessly discussing some of the darkest aspects of what it feels like to be mentally ill, they are performing a revolutionary act of service for public health. And it happens to be hilarious.
ALTHOUGH I GREW up in a household with two highly educated parents (one of whom is a doctor!), we really didn’t talk about mental health. That is, sadly, quite common in this country — at home and in school. As of 2019, more than half of the schools in the United States still lacked a compulsory “mental ed” curriculum. An ACLU report from 2019 found that across the country, “14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.”
And yet few disorders are as pervasive. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adults every year, while another 16 million Americans suffer from major depressive disorder. The American Psychological Association reports that approximately one in five kids in the United States experience a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder annually, and yet only about 20 percent of them are seen by a specialized mental health care provider.
In addition to the alarming chasm between how frequently mental illness occurs and how often people actually get treatment, Patrick Corrigan, a professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology who researches mental health stigma, says that popular attitudes about mental illness have gotten worse in recent decades. Many people are under the false impression that those of us with mental illness are incapable of holding down jobs or getting through school, or that we’re morally weak and ought to be able to fix ourselves, or that we are dangerous and perpetually on the brink of violence.
I can speak from personal experience about the combined effect of this pernicious silence and stigma. When I faced my first storms of panic and depression in college and my early 20s, my symptoms were exacerbated by additional burdens of loneliness, confusion, and the persistent (albeit inaccurate) feeling there was something profoundly wrong with me. Relying largely on self-devised strategies — ignoring my symptoms, distracting myself through workaholism, accepting anxious or depressed tendencies as immutable parts of my personality — I gritted my teeth and survived my 20s. But around the time I turned 30, I crashed.
For years, I lost hours, and sometimes entire days, to spirals of negative thoughts about my health, my future, my safety, and my relationships. At times, things got so bad that I spent weeks unable to work; at one particularly low point, I missed a close friend’s wedding. In early 2017, my reserves of hope and energy dwindling, I realized that I really needed help and signed up for therapy with no prescheduled end date.
In the years that followed, I continued on a slow, but successful, healing journey. I attended biweekly therapy sessions. I read stacks of self-help books. I stopped drinking alcohol and started consciously taking breaks from work to relax and recharge. I experimented with meditation and yoga. I went out of my way to maintain healthy sleep and exercise regimens.
And I watched and read a lot of comedy.
WHEN I NOTICED that people who were funny for a living were talking about the stuff I was going through, I felt a rush of relief and comfort. At certain points, when I couldn’t muster the energy or concentration to do much of anything else, I could sit and read a memoir, like Marc Maron’s book, “Attempting Normal,” which begins with the dedication, “For everyone who is successfully defying their wiring.”
While stand-ups have long trafficked in taboos — think of Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Joan Rivers — I was fortunate that my struggles happened to coincide with a golden age of comedy about mental health. In recent years, comedian and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” creator and star Rachel Bloom brought the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder to life in vivid detail in her book “I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are” and blessed the world with the musical number “Antidepressants Are So Not a Big Deal.” Former “Saturday Night Live” star Darrell Hammond, in both his memoir and the recent documentary “Cracked Up,” discussed the long-suppressed childhood trauma that has wreaked havoc on his adult life. Gary Gulman released an entire stand-up special dedicated to depression. At one point, he laughs at the preposterous idea that the side effects of antidepressants are somehow worse than the depression itself. “Impotence?” he says at one point. “Oh yeah, I was having so much sex in the fetal position.”
Along the way, I collected other memorable descriptions and one-liners. In the mini-documentary “Laughing Matters,” the writer Sara Benincasa says, “A panic attack is basically the inverse of an orgasm.” In his book, Maron perfectly describes what it feels like to be a tireless catastrophizer. “The problem is that I am always walking around preparing for and reacting to the horrors of what my brain is making up, living as if every potential terror and every defeat were already happening — because in my mind, it always is,” he writes. To this day, I haven’t found a more apt and succinct description of depression than what Sarah Silverman says in her memoir, “The Bedwetter”: “I felt homesick, but I was home.”
While some focused on the symptoms of mental illness, others focused on treatments. Comedian Chris Gethard’s therapist, Barb, plays a larger role in his HBO special, “Career Suicide,” than his parents or wife; Gulman goes one step further in “The Great Depresh” by taking his viewers for an actual sit-down conversation with his psychiatrist. In her memoir “Wishful Drinking,” the late actress and humorist Carrie Fisher discusses her experience with electroconvulsive therapy and offers a list of “folks with whom I share electrocompany” that includes Judy Garland, Yves St. Laurent, and Ernest Hemingway.
Perhaps the boldest among this cohort are those who talk about that most stigmatized of mental health treatments: hospitalization. At one point in her mini-special, “Psych Ward,” Maria Bamford recalls telling a friend, “If ever I start talking too fast about wanting to get in touch with the pope or some other ethical authority, put me in a purple van and drive me to doggy daycare, ’cause I need to be boarded for the weekend.”
It wasn’t just education and validation that these comedians provided; in some cases, I got a tangible boost in my healing process. In the fall of 2019, when I was weighing whether to begin taking antidepressants (spoiler: I did, and they were a game-changer), I happened to watch Gethard’s “Career Suicide,” in which the writer and comedian targeted one of my biggest fears: that the medication would somehow suppress my creativity or fundamentally alter my personality. At one point, Gethard describes how he worried about the effect medication might have on his ability to write and tell jokes, and how much time he wasted on these unfounded fears. “Because I’m happy to tell ya, at least in my case, I am significantly [expletive] funnier on medication.”
He goes on to rebuke anyone who might romanticize the idea that pain and suffering are essential to great art. “You know what I’d love?” he says. “I’d love if Kurt Cobain was still alive, putting out [crappy] light rock albums,” he says. “I would love it if in December, Kurt Cobain dropped a Starbucks exclusive Christmas album.”
TO BETTER APPRECIATE the silence that pervades American life around mental illness, it’s helpful to understand just how prevalent it is. Beyond the tens of millions of Americans who have anxiety or major depressive disorders, 7.7 million Americans experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 2.3 million have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and 2.2 million are affected by obsessive-compulsive disorder. From the CDC comes this alarming statistic: “In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide.” It is a near certainty that someone you know — indeed, probably multiple people — struggles with some form of mental illness. And yet it generally remains taboo to talk about it at work, on a date, at a family gathering, and in most other social situations.
And so, in recent years, I have watched with appreciation as certain segments of society have become more outspoken about these issues. I’m thinking of athletes like Michael Phelps and Kevin Love and Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, who have all had high-profile moments when they prioritized or discussed mental health. Elsewhere, Bruce Springsteen has shared that he’s spent “30 years in analysis.” In 2018, the attorney, Afghanistan war veteran, and former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander dropped out of the Kansas City mayoral race in order to focus on treatment for his depression and PTSD.
I’m not saying that the world of comedy is mental health utopia. Not every comedian has won the battle with their demons. I’m thinking of Robin Williams and Chris Farley and John Belushi and so many other deeply funny people whom we lost before their time. And certainly the comedy world has had its share of men who have caused distress and trauma in others. (Looking at you, Louis C.K. and Bill Cosby.)
But still, no public figure or profession rivals comedians for speaking out about mental illness and helping to chip away at our public denial. And perhaps it makes sense that these folks would lead the way, given their tendency to both aggressively mine their own experiences for material and take aim at things most of us are afraid to talk about. In the 2019 documentary “Dying Laughing,” the Australian comedian Jim Jefferies says, “Maybe comedy gets labeled with ‘We’re all manic-depressives,’ because it’s the only occupation where you’re allowed to constantly talk about being a manic-depressive.”
ON A SCIENTIFIC level, laughter is simply good for us. It might not quite be the “best medicine,” as the old saying goes, but it is medicinal. “We know from a biochemical standpoint that it increases the level of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin — all things that produce joy in the human brain,” Peter Sheras, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Virginia, tells me. He describes laughter as a “biologically enhancing” process.
And in a society where illness is shrouded in both secrecy and shame, there’s added potency. When I spoke with John Moe — author of “The Hilarious World of Depression,” host of the podcast “Depresh Mode,” and an outspoken advocate for awareness of mental health — he described what happens when you watch, say, Patton Oswalt’s stand-up routine about shopping in a supermarket at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and becoming “effortlessly, joyously suicidal” in the Lean Cuisine aisle as Toto’s “Africa” pipes over the loudspeakers. When the person who’s suffering hears this, Moe says, “suddenly they’re not alone anymore, and they’re not unusual anymore, and suddenly they’re part of a team, and other people have gone through this.” Human beings know on an innate level that it’s safer to be with a group, he says. “And so what do they do after holding it in all these years? They can finally exhale in relief, and that exhale comes out as a laugh.”
I have never been further from a laugh, or even a smile, than when I was in the throes of a panic attack or deep depression. The symptoms of mental illness are, if nothing else, suffocatingly serious. To be mentally unwell is to helplessly fixate on the least funny things imaginable: death, disease, shame, guilt, self-loathing, vivid images of horrible things happening to me or my loved ones. The tiniest dip in the airplane means I’m headed to a fiery death. A pause before a returned text message means my friend has decided to permanently cut me off. After a certain amount of time spent in hypervigilance against ever-present doom, my body’s energy dwindles and fear gives way to apathy, immobility, and hopelessness. I’m reminded of the line about this from “The Great Depresh”: “When I’m in my right mind, a sunset is justification for existence,” Gulman says. “And when I’m depressed, I look at a sunset and I think ‘Yeah, you gave up too.’”
Laughing at this stuff helps us to see past the toxic illusions that mental illness creates.
AFTER YEARS OF psychological turbulence, I feel like I have finally reached cruising altitude. While I may endure the occasional spell of mild anxiety or depression, these days I’m not operating in crisis mode and I haven’t been for some time. Rather than desperately battling negative thoughts from minute to minute, my days are spent focused on the tasks of my work, or running errands, or savoring the joys of my hobbies: a bike ride, cooking dinner for my girlfriend, snuggling with my cats while reading a book. Because of this relatively recent progress, when I watch a comedy special or read a comedian’s book, I’m looking for a laugh rather than a lifeline.
But I’m also clear-eyed about what lies ahead in my ongoing journey. And for this, too, I have comedians to thank. Toward the end of “Career Suicide,” Chris Gethard shares that he still takes pills every morning and evening, and he still gets depressed pretty frequently, but “nine times out of 10, when it shows up now, I can handle my depression how we all handle a cold.” Near the end of his memoir, Darrell Hammond ticks off various ways that his life has improved: He’s not in jail or having nightmares or cutting himself or taking heavy-duty pharmaceuticals. All the same, he says, “nobody’s ever really free of their baggage.” He adds, “I still wear a lot of black but I’m thinking about going clothing shopping soon.”
Perhaps one day, discussion of mental suffering will be so common that it no longer feels risque and comedians will decamp for other, edgier subjects. And if that day ever comes, I will have saved plenty of one-liners to chuckle about. Like that moment in Neal Brennan’s stand-up special, “3 Mics,” when he mentions that he went to both a psychiatrist and a psychologist. Then he stops to say, “If you don’t know the difference, congrats: You’re having a great life.”
If you are experiencing a mental-health crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255. Also available is the Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741. To learn more about mental health treatment options in general, go to: nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Treatments.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence. He is working on a true-crime book about prescription drug dealing for Steerforth Press.