Depression and anxiety are no laughing matter, and David Granirer knows that first hand. He has struggled with both most of his life.
Now, though, he makes his a point of laughing at his experiences and teaching others to do the same.
“I’ve been through everything — suicide attempts, hospitalizations, I’m on meds, I’ve done tons of therapy — and I just wanted to give people something different,” he says.
With his group Stand Up For Mental Health, that’s exactly what Granirer has done.
Through six-month sessions twice a year, Granirer teaches people with mental health issues how to create stand-up comedy routines from their struggles. The course culminates in a graduation ceremony and live stage show at a comedy club.
Since he founded it 15 years ago, Granirer estimates he’s trained 300 comics.
He says part of his goal is to remove the stigma often associated with mental health disorders. However, the courses also help those dealing with mental health issues to process their experiences and communicate them to others.
“It is totally cathartic, because here you are, you get to tell your story, you get to tell the worst things about yourself, all those things that you’re so ashamed of. And all of a sudden they just become great comedy material,” he says.
“You know, you can’t wait to talk about that time you thought you were Jesus or ran around the airport naked, and when you tell your story that way and people want to listen — and they laugh and they applaud and they tell you how great you are — you go, ‘wow, you know something, I’m not such a bad person after all.'”
Students find Granirer’s program through social media call-outs or word of mouth, and enroll in groups that meet weekly.
The classes typically have 10 to 15 people, and participants start out just sharing their experiences.
As the weeks pass, Granirer teaches them the craft of writing jokes, and participants start testing them out on each other to see what elicits a laugh and what falls flat.
Granirer says his students can handle it.
“These people have been through suicide attempts, hospitalizations, trauma — they’ve survived an amazing amount of stuff,” he says. “They can survive five minutes of a set that doesn’t go well. And we do a lot to make sure they succeed.”
‘I think it’s brilliant’
Wendy Lam, 47, just graduated from the program. She was one of 20 students to take her bit to the stage recently at a comedy club in Vancouver.
She says she never thought she’d do anything like this, but came across Granirer’s call-out for students on a local Facebook page and felt the timing was right for her.
“I wanted a way to move on and to leave my stuff behind — what better way than to accept things and look at things from a more lighthearted angle?,” she says.
“I think it’s brilliant, because it’s talking about life, but from a perspective you wouldn’t think of. And it’s very interesting to learn about comedy and the technical aspects of comedy writing.”
Lam was running a busy private practice as a speech therapist when she says issues from her past caught up with her.
Originally from Vietnam, Lam came to Canada when she was 8 as a refugee. She said she was caught between two cultures then and was pushed to excel in school. It was sexual abuse she says she suffered when she was 10 years old, though, that lead to many years of depression and post traumatic stress syndrome that followed her into adulthood.
“I was what you might call a high-functioning person with mental illness, and it wasn’t until I was 40 years old that I just couldn’t do it anymore,” says Lam.
“I couldn’t pretend to be OK and normal, and put on a happy face for other people.”
Lam stumbled across Stand Up For Mental Health after being in private therapy for several years, and taking medication for borderline personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as depression, which she was diagnosed with shortly after she sought treatment. She says after getting the medical care she desperately needed, finding another outlet helped her communicate what she was going through to others.
“Our jokes, they’re very personal because it’s about our own personal experiences, and we talk about embarrassing or personal stuff, and it is a release to do that. But the most important thing is we have people coming who are supporting us, and so we’re actually being heard,” she says.
Granirer, who also works as a mental health counsellor, wants to make it clear his program isn’t meant to replace professional treatment, but it does offer something that can complement it.
“This is in addition to therapy, it’s not a substitute,” says Granirer.
“They’re telling a story they might not want to tell their friends or their families. Some of these people have tried to tell their families and they’ve been shunned. So here they are getting to speak their truth to a club full of people, and that is so cathartic.”
Stand Up For Mental Health is expanding to cities outside Vancouver, and Granirer has also taken his comics to perform for government- and health care-related organizations to spread his message.
The success of the program is evident in the fact that its students keep coming back. In every show that Stand Up For Mental Health hosts, alumni of past sessions also return and perform. They often act as mentors for new students, too.
“One of the comics … has been with us since 2005, and what can I say? I just can’t get rid of them, which tells me that they’re really getting something important out of this,” Granirer says.
Lam agrees, saying she plans to keep performing with Granirer’s group, and hopes that by doing so she can continue to heal herself while helping others.
“I think that David’s vision is ahead of its time, I can’t believe there aren’t more programs like this,” she says.
“I’m hoping people wake up to the idea that it’s OK to talk and joke about mental illness, and that people with mental illness themselves would like to be able to talk about it and not feel like they need to hide in shame.”