For many, the thought of being on stage would leave them paralysed with fear. But Darren Devine hears from comedian Harriet Dyer, for whom sharing her mental health struggle with an audience is therapeutic.
For Harriet Dyer, performing stand-up comedy is therapeutic
Comic Harriet Dyer penned her university dissertation on whether you have to be dysfunctional to make it as a successful wit. Her conclusion? Pretty much. Dyer said she couldn’t find anyone in comedy that “hadn’t struggled with something”.
Dyer, who has bipolar disorder, is one of a growing number of comedians sharing their struggles with audiences who are increasingly receptive to material focused on mental health. For Dyer, the stage - and the opportunities it presents to open up and unburden - has become her therapy couch. The comedian reports feeling “let down” by services when she has tried to access therapy, and finds medication helpful in reducing the sense of "impending doom" she felt when she did not take it.
Interviewed via email she wrote: “I find it all very therapeutic to talk about these things so openly and to be able to see the funny in them. It really does help me cope better.”
Dyer’s solo hour at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2014 was focused on mental health. She added: “I was really taken by how many people would come up to me after, wanting to open up about their issues. And how many people said it was important to talk about and, how, after watching my show people said that they felt they could now open up to people that they haven't previously been able to about their issues".
When the Edinburgh Fringe Festival ended, she knew she was onto something and wasn’t ready to give up her new focus on mental health.
Comedians are prone to psychiatric problems
Some of comedy’s most famous names have had well documented psychiatric problems: from Spike Milligan to Stephen Fry and Robin Williams.
Milligan, who had bipolar disorder, was in and out of psychiatric institutions for 40 years, whilst Fry has become a high profile campaigner for mental health awareness. Williams was reportedly also affected by the mood disorder.
Psychologists have suggested the comic’s ability to rifle through disconnected topics with quick fire observations on random events speaks of mania, which occurs usually as part of bipolar disorder. And though for some comics the stage may seem like the perfect outlet for this kind of frenzied creativity, what if the work is itself the cause - or a contributory factor - in mental health struggles?
In December, research by Cardiff and Stockholm Universities found comedians’ working conditions contribute to their mental health problems. Dr Dimitrinka Stoyanova Russell and Nick Butler found that “comedians project an image of positivity to demonstrate a willingness to work for little or no pay in order to curry favour with comedy club promoters”.
The researchers also found that comedians “suppress feelings of anxiety and frustration that arise from financial insecurity in order to keep their relationships with promoters on an even keel”.
Barking Tales - a mental health stand-up show
After reading of how comedians are more prone to psychiatric problems, Dyer turned her attention to setting up Barking Tales, a monthly mental health stand-up show with three acts.
Dyer says the research findings make “perfect sense”. “Especially as the sorts of people that are often inclined to go into comedy in the first place are a little bit broken. So that that mixed with so much travelling, quite a lot of loneliness, nothing's secure and you just have to trust really that you are eventually going to get paid can, of course, become problematic.”
Staged at Manchester’s Zombie Shack, the evenings recently won the City Life award for Best Comedy Club. Dyer said the evenings have “built up the most wonderful bunch of regulars, pretty much all of them have mental health issues themselves”. For many of these regulars, Barking Tales is the only social event they go to, says Dyer. Dyer writes: “At Barking Tales I say it's a comedy/storytelling night so there's less pressure for those big laughs, but they always still come.
She added: “I absolutely love it there, I think it's the only gig where I feel I can 100% be myself.”
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Striking the balance between therapeutic and alienating
The comic, from Cornwall, never made a conscious decision to talk about mental health as part of a well intentioned effort to battle stigma. But instead, she says openness has always formed the cornerstone of her work and the material flowed from this impulse. Nothing is off limits in her routine, with Dyer saying suicide attempts are the most painful and difficult events she has shared with an audience.
“The good thing about Barking Tales is that more often than not the audience have been through the same so there's never any judgement from anyone,” she added. That being said, Dyer stresses that it’s important to choose your venues and moments for mental health material... a rowdy club on a Saturday night rammed with drunks may not evoke the connection with an audience the comic is looking for.
“You’ll probably end up not getting the right response and as a result feel much worse,” she wrote. Dyer also does a regular podcast, Don’t Worry, Bi (polar) Happy, she says is focused on a quest for “more ups than downs”. “I find wittering on about it all there does me the world of good too. It's like talking through it in so much detail with myself helps me process it, it's almost like I'm counselling myself,” she adds.
But how do you strike a balance between comedy and a therapeutic endeavor to ensure your material is still focused on laughs and doesn’t become a self-indulgent exploration of your own problems that alienates the audience?
“We're comedians, so it's still natural to write these bits like we would any other bit with it coming to some kind of natural punchline at the end.”
Added to this are the constant demands in the age of social media, with its endless opportunities for self-promotion that can see comics locked in a competitive struggle for clicks and attention. “I find the worst of it is social media, everyone trying to keep up appearances. To a certain degree we've all got the keep up the self-promotion, but I find it can all easily become toxic”, added Dyer.