Page last updated at 00:03 GMT, Saturday, 5 September 2009 01:03 UK

Not funny peculiar

Patrick Jackson
BBC News

David Granirer takes the mic in Vancouver

These Canadian comedians mean to make you laugh but they are also throwing punchlines at a wall of prejudice.

They all have mental health problems, and all want to rise above them through laughter.

David Granirer, who takes medication for depression himself, has been teaching them a course called Stand Up For Mental Health since 2004.

He now runs classes in Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa, as well as performing himself.

Graduates include Alex Winstanley, 23, who mines for jokes the schizophrenia with which he was diagnosed three years ago.

The two men talked to the BBC World Service about passing the microphone to the mentally ill.

A life of material

"The more screwed-up and dysfunctional you are, the better your act is going to be" is what David tells his students.

"Your life is your act."

Alex, who believes he will probably never stop "hearing voices" but says he has learnt how to deal with it, feels "more alive on stage than in real life".

"I'd find that after a show, I'd feel so exhilarated I actually wouldn't hear voices for a few days or, if I did, they would be positive," he adds.

David tells of one woman with schizophrenia who came into class one day wearing a striped blouse.

"She said 'The voices haven't let me wear stripes for eight years but now that I'm doing comedy, I'm not so afraid of the voices, so I'm wearing stripes'."

Succeed in stand-up "and you feel like you can do anything", says the teacher.

Shedding shame

Alex Winstanley (image courtesy of same)
Having schizophrenia, I spend a lot of time being jealous of so-called normal people my age.

I've always wanted to have a dead-end job and a divorce.

Sometimes I imagine a so-called normal person being jealous of me: "Alex, you have, like, a natural gift for, like, hallucinating. I have to drop two hits of acid to get anywhere close. And I'm so, like, lonely, I wish I had voices to keep me company."

David likes to joke that healthy people are more dangerous because, undiagnosed, they arouse less suspicion and, free of medication, are better placed to do damage.

"Being diagnosed with mental illness is like receiving a black mark on your forehead," he says.

"It changes the way the whole world sees you and reacts to you.

"You feel that all of a sudden everyone is watching you, is afraid of you and is wanting to do you harm."

He speaks from personal experience having first suffered depression in his late teens, before being diagnosed in his mid-30s.

"I've been in psych wards, had therapy, the whole nine yards," he says.

Alex likens the stigma to "another illness to deal with at the same time".

"As people with mental illness, we carry a lot of shame and that shame thrives in the darkness, in secrecy," says his teacher.

"Then all of a sudden we take these incidents, these things we are really ashamed of and turn them into comedy.

Alex Winstanley takes the mic

"We tell a roomful of people, they laugh and applaud, and all of a sudden the shame starts to dissipate, and you think 'I'm not such a bad person after all'."

Despite the subject matter, the jokes are not all gallows humour, David adds.

"There is a certain amount, yes, but a lot of it is just really about everyday life because we people with mental illness have lives, go to school, have jobs, have families."

His students present an "amazing mix".

"We have every possible diagnosis, age group, socio-economic status," he says.

Comedy plus medication

Having taught comedy at a Vancouver college for 10 years, David was inspired to launch the mental health course after occasionally witnessing students make "amazing therapeutic breakthroughs".

David Granirer (image courtesy of same)
I went to a primal scream therapist. It was really intense, but halfway through the session I had to stop and ask, shouldn't the screaming be coming from me?

While comedy is not for everyone, with or without mental problems, those who really want to do it, will get something out of it, he believes.

David says his programme is supported by mental health organisations and he stresses that it does not conflict with psychiatrists' work.

"We would never say 'This is a replacement for your medication, don't take your medication'," he says.

He cannot yet offer any empirical evidence of the benefits of stand-up.

However a study due to take place in a few months' time may lend his form of therapy more weight.

Alex, meanwhile, is happily hooked on humour.

"It's my permanent medicine!" he laughs.

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