Stand-up comedy for male suicide prevention? You must be joking!
Can recovery from suicide ever be a laughing matter? Can comedy be the light at the end of the tunnel for people affected by suicide? In this blog, GM, one of our Experts by Experience, talks about the comedy course he attended this spring and how it helped to see the world from a brighter place.
My continuing journey of recovery from mental collapse has been a rich one. As a service user at CNWL (Central North-West London NHS Trust) and its Recovery College, I’ve met some fine people and been introduced to some extraordinary opportunities to explore my own lived experience, joining fellow-travellers in mutual support and self-discovery.
One opportunity, through an introduction from Lourdes at Rethink Mental Illness, has been to become an Expert by Experience. As such, I’ve met recipients of project grants and discovered how programme participants have been empowered to challenge the malaise of the high suicide rate amongst men. I’ve been glad to contribute to panels on co-production (a phrase, along with ‘Expert by Experience’, I hadn’t heard of four years ago).
Co-production is in place so that my voice may be listened to, that full regard be given to the milestones of my journey in the designing of programmes which seek to improve mental health. Thanks for listening! To me and the others.
Lourdes had seen a feature in The Guardian on Angie Belcher’s social prescription of comedy, for victims of trauma in her hometown of Bristol. This must have been followed by one of those ‘light-bulb moments’ for Lourdes: could this prescription be used for men at risk of suicide?
For a week we shared, discussed, challenged, took fag breaks, learned and laughed.
A co-production group, with myself and the other participants, was assembled at Rethink Mental Illness in the autumn of 2022. Angie, a comedienne, co-facilitated with the urbane comedy coach, Mr. Cee. For a week we shared, discussed, challenged, took fag breaks, learned and laughed. Then Angie returned to Bristol and that was that… until I heard that the pioneering 10-week course, 'Comedy on Referral: Healing by Feeling Funny', was now advertising for new participants and that - well done, Angie! - it was going to be held at the Comedy Store! I was invited to join the programme as an Expert by Experience. I was really chuffed to be asked, how could I refuse? Ah, that after ten weeks, participants would be showing off their new comedy skills for a special showcase… at the Comedy Store itself…
Monday mornings in Leicester Square in February. An empty Comedy Store. Twenty men, service users of mental health trusts, gathered in order to…what? Another course, another meeting, another step group, what’s this one about? Whatever it is, guys, it’s original. Angie tells us about her style, her mission statement: “To comfort the afflicted, afflict the comforted!” Not typical recovery college fare.
And it’s down to business. Angie and Mr. Cee are professionals. They perform all the time; they coach communication skills, they get laughs. But it involves work. We start with warm up exercises and tongue twisters. We’re moving about and find ourselves in different parts of the auditorium, according to our Bolton and Bolton communication styles: you know, analytical, amiable, expressive, driver. These will also be our comedic styles when the time comes.
What is our comedy persona? What honesty will we bring, is there a trauma to be revealed? How will that affect us and our audience?
Any question pitched from the group - what to do about hecklers? what if they don’t laugh? what if I am shaking? - is fielded by Mr. Cee with the calm, measured tones of a sergeant of marines.
Another week. What is our comedy persona? What honesty will we bring, is there a trauma to be revealed? How will that affect us and our audience? Comedy archetypes: am I a magician or a fool? What’s my emotion? I’m loving this.
Another week. A few have dropped off, but we’re still maintaining a strong attendance level. I get up on stage for the first time with another participant in an improvisation game. There’s a special bond between us now that we have performed together! And it was funny!
There’s a magic taking place as the weeks progress. Some of the guys are meeting up outside, going to comedy gigs, discussing their material, communicating on WhatsApp - these men are talking to each other!
More magic. Those among us, who were shy and introverted, are stunning us with their courage, and they are funny!
Now, we are rehearsing our material one by one, in front of each other. Thorough and professional feedback given to each one by Angie (“The edgier the material you want to do, the more work you need to do on it!”) and Mr. Cee (“Being creative is where pain stops, and healing starts”). More magic. Those among us, who were shy and introverted, are stunning us with their courage, and they are funny!
Then it’s a Sunday afternoon in May. At least 160 people in the Comedy Store auditorium. Angie takes us through some warmups in the green room and Mr. Cee, our compere, advises us on conserving our energy until we go on. There is a hell of a noise from the audience. Then the lights go down…
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