Turn on, tune inExperiencing mental illness can be a lonely time, but a podcast is helping to reach out to people and let them know they’re not alone. Mary O’Hara reports

Paul Gilmartin knows exactly why he decided to take a different approach to speaking about mental health. “No one was talking about it the way I talked about it to my friends,” he says of what he heard on the radio or saw on television. “I mean from the perspective of someone who is living it.” 

As a comedian and entertainer and someone with first-hand experience of mental ill health Gilmartin explains that he realised there was “much more” that could be done to explore mental illness in a way that directly connected with people and which was candid and accessible. His way of trying to achieve this was to set up a podcast.

Gilmartin now produces and hosts the Mental Illness Happy Hour broadcasting from his home in Los Angeles. In the four years since its launch in 2011 the podcast has become a highly listenable and respected show. Through frank discussions and lively, often humorous, interviews it has built up a loyal band of supporters not just in the US but across the globe. With a blend of interviews, often with celebrity or comedy friends along with listener interaction the weekly one-hour show has won its fanbase largely because of its deftness at balancing seriousness and insight with wit, and by providing a space for people to open up. 

Initially set up to probe mental health issues that were common among people in the creative arts – it continues to cater to and include many performers – the scope of the podcast broadened as its audience grew and so too did the topics. 

Mental Illness Happy Hour doesn’t shy away from tackling complex subjects such as surviving childhood sexual trauma yet still manages to bring a fresh approach to talking about mental health generally, including its effects on families or partners of those living with a diagnosis.

“I wanted to humour and comfort,” Gilmartin says of the overall tone. “The things that really helped me [during my recovery] was humour and love. I can’t find the words to say how important humour can be.”

Gilmartin’s comedic style is always evident but it is clearly anchored in lived experience of mental illness. How he describes himself and his life reflects the tone of the podcast. This, from the website, is a case in point: “Paul was thrilled to be diagnosed with clinical depression in 1999 because it meant he wasn’t just an asshole. By 2003, he realized he was still an asshole and an alcoholic. Since 2003 he has been sober, mostly happy and a tiny bit less of an asshole.” This is how he describes what the podcast and its website are for. “This site is not intended to replace the need for medical diagnosis. Please leave that to professionals. It’s not a doctor’s office. Think of it more as a waiting room that doesn’t suck.” 

Reaching out

Galvanised by his own experience of severe depression and as an abuse survivor but also realising how many people in the entertainment industry were living with mental health problems, Gilmartin says he wanted the podcast to provide a space where anyone would feel comfortable discussing something that often remains hidden. It has been well received for this reason. Psychology Today concluded that the show “Normalizes what so many others feel but have been too fearful or ashamed to express… remarkable.” The New York Times described it as “a perversely safe place in which he and his guests talk about their fears, addictions and traumatic childhoods.”

Producing a podcast that is freely distributed online rather than trying to secure a show on a radio station meant he could reach people internationally, not just in one part of the US, Gilmartin says of his decision to launch Mental Illness Happy Hour. However, it also made sense because the subject matter and how the programme matured over time could reflect the people who tuned in. One of the aspects of the Mental Illness Happy Hour that has helped shape it into something beyond the weekly broadcast is that it has blogs and a forum meaning “that a community” has formed from it, Gilmartin says. He also runs regular surveys on a number of topics from what helps people cope to voting for favourite episodes.

That audiences tend to feel intimately connected to podcasts and interact and feedback on them means that as a format it tends to engender participation, which makes it a natural choice of platform, Gilmartin suggests. Having great guests is important too he adds. Recent guests have included comic book artist Dean Trippe on childhood trauma and comedian Tiffany Haddish on her mother’s schizophrenia.

“Social media has really helped people to know they are not alone and the podcast was a great way to connect because, unlike a radio show which would be micromanaged, I could shape it differently,” Gilmartin explains. “The biggest thing in the evolution of the podcast was input from listeners. People I’ve never met would just get in touch with ideas and the podcast is so much better for it. People reach out via emails. It brings some comfort. I think it works because it has become a community. It’s not about me being a host, detached from the audience. There is something about [podcasting]. Listeners have a direct line in. It’s about trust.”

A whole range of issues has come up in the show, many of which have been “eye-openers” to Gilmartin as a host and as a person with lived experience. “It’s basically about any of the struggles we have had, for example, negative thinking, not necessarily a formal diagnosis.” 

Common themes

Depression is one of the most common topics that interviewees talk about and Gilmartin says it is a major reason for many people getting in touch, in particular when they feel “like it’s a weakness” of some kind. Anxiety and addiction are also recurring themes that listeners and guests bring up.

Another subject that has featured prominently is workplace bullying, so much so that Gilmartin launched a survey about it via the website. “I feel lucky that I’m in a profession that doesn’t look down on mental illness or erratic behaviour but that’s not the case for many people. I know people are often afraid to talk about it.”

In terms of the wider impact of a show like Mental Illness Happy Hour it is clear that for Gilmartin sees it is part of a much bigger conversation that needs to be had around mental health. The fact that the shows are archived online also means people can select shows and topics they are particularly interested in. 

“One of the things I hope, I think, the podcast does is help people express themselves or to get help somewhere,” he says. “We like to think of ourselves as evolved but in so many ways were are still in the dark ages in terms of emotional literacy.” 

Since the show took off he has started giving talks at colleges to students, including about his own recovery and says the reaction from young people has been “fantastic”. For many of the students it’s the first time they realise they are not alone and “that others have gotten through it.”

When it comes to what the podcast has done for his own life Gilmartin insists he “never in a million years” would have seen himself with a show about mental health if someone had told him 10 years ago. However he says looking back it has brought “a sense of meaning and purpose” to his life. “It’s what I was missing my whole life. There’s no other place in the world I should be.” And the goal for the future? “To keep it fresh and innovative. I’d like to reach out to everybody.”

About the author

Mary O’Hara is a freelance journalist