A&E » Arts

Laughter for your mental health

Stand Up for Mental Health explores 'the lighter side of taking meds, seeing counsellors, getting diagnosed and surviving the mental health system'



What: Stand Up For Mental Health

When: Thursday, Nov. 18, 5:30 p.m.

Where: Rainbow Theatre (below conference centre)

Cost: $3

Bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder are usually taboo topics; generally speaking, not something people are comfortable poking fun at.

But one man is out to change that.

David Granirer is a counselor, standup comic and author of the book The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst Can Lead to Happiness and Success . He's also personally struggled with depression.

In 2004 he founded Stand Up For Mental Health, a cross-Canada program that helps people who struggle with mental illness turn their problems into fodder for stand up comedy, then perform at conferences, treatment centres, psych wards, mental health organizations, corporations, government agencies and university campuses across the country.

"Before they've seen us, some people think, 'Oh, they're just making fun of people with mental illness.' But when they come and see our shows, we're talking about our own experiences," Granirer said during a recent interview. "We're not pointing the finger at other people and making fun of them!"

Granirer got his first taste of the stand up experience in 1993.

"I wanted to do standup comedy for a long time and I used to go down and watch amateur night at Punchlines a whole lot. I finally got up the nerve to call them up and ask them if I could get some time. So I went and did my first five minutes and had five minutes of dead silence," he chuckled. "That was fun.

"But after that, I took a stand up comedy course and the next time I was prepared and knew what I was doing, and it was great!"

Soon, Granirer began working material about depression into his act.

"A lot of my stuff is about mental health. It's about my mental health journey, about things I've experienced in my life."

For the past 12 years, he has taught a stand up comedy course at Langara College but that class has nothing to do with mental illness - that is, unless you consider wanting to get up in front of people and make them laugh a little bit crazy.

"But I would occasionally see people come through the course and they would have these life-changing experiences. And I thought, 'Wow, wouldn't it be cool to do this course and give it to people who wanted a life-changing experience?' And that's how Stand Up For Mental Health was born.

"I remember I had one woman who told me she had a fear of flying, and the day after our showcase she got on the plane and she said, 'My fear was gone. I felt like after I did stand-up comedy, I could do anything!'"

It can also help break down some of the secrecy and misconceptions that surround mental illness.

"I think one of the main points of getting up and talking about it is to address the stigma, and by doing it through comedy, you do it in a completely different way."

It can also be cathartic, especially for the comedian.

"I think it's a form of therapy, first of all, for the comics, because here they are talking about all sorts of stuff that happened in the past that really upset them, and yet they're turning it into stand-up comedy. And I think there's something very therapeutic about that process."

In just six years, Stand Up For Mental Health has grown into a very popular program, with classes operating in Vancouver, Victoria, Ottawa, Guelph, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. They've also received a lot of support from mental health organizations across the country.

"I had no idea what I was starting at the beginning, and so yeah, I was surprised that so many people liked the idea and wanted to have groups in their cities or wanted to have our groups perform at their events."

The group is bringing the show to Whistler for the first time later this month as part of the Whistler Community Services Society's annual welcome week roster of events and activities.

Granirer hopes that anyone who comes out to see the show will also be enlightened by the experience.

"I hope they come out of it with a completely different perspective on what mental illness is, and what people with mental illness are capable of doing. I hear people coming out of our shows sometimes, and they'll be saying something like, 'Oh, I saw this guy on stage and he had schizophrenia and he was hilarious!' And how often do you hear the words 'hilarious' and 'schizophrenia' in the same sentence?"