Page last updated at 09:18 GMT, Thursday, 29 October 2009

Laughter is the best medicine

By Anna-Marie Lever
Health reporter, BBC News


Extracts from the controversial comedy performed by John Ryan at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre

How can you make jokes about people wanting to take their own lives?

This was comedian John Ryan's challenge in "Cracking Up", a comedy show about mental health.

John was asked by Surrey NHS Primary Care Trust if he would be interested in bringing some stand-up to a production they were developing about suicide, depression and anxiety.

"Humour is powerful," says the show's producer, Maya Twardzicki, talking at a performance at the Bernie Grant Centre, London, which was sponsored by the Bridge New Deal Communities, a regeneration project based in area.

"You can communicate with an audience effectively if you make them laugh. People are reluctant to talk about mental health, but comedy can grab their attention."

As well as stand-up, the show is a blend of sketches, poems written by people with mental health issues and anecdotes.

Luckily, John was excited by the idea, "Mental health is one of the great taboos in society. It is something we fear. I like the idea of pushing that boundary."

Importance of the pub

One of the main threads running through this stand-up is the need for people to talk to each other and share their problems.

There used to be a time when you could go to shop, and people would talk to you.

Now they say: "would you like to go self-service -it's quicker?"

I say: "no, I don't work here."

"It's quicker," they persist.

Of course it is going to be quicker - I'm going to nick most the stuff.

John tells a true story of his friend Dave, who tried to commit suicide. However, on the way to the shops to buy the music he decided he wanted to die to, he bumped into a friend.

Reluctantly he went to the pub and they chatted.

John says: "He went, he had a drink, and he never killed himself. They reckon there are two reasons why he never killed himself- one is because he talked to someone.

" The second reason is because he went to the pub, and that's why men should go to the pub girls -because it is stopping us killing ourselves."

John's material is focused on men's mental health, as men are less likely than women to talk about their feelings and seek the right kind of support.

In preparation for the show, and to gather material, John ran a series of workshops with men who use mental health services and those in professions ranging from those in fire-fighting and building.

Jeans now fit

Sharing the stage with John is fellow comedian Gareth Berliner.

Gareth Berliner
Comedian Gareth Berliner tells the story about how laughter saved his life

"Laughter saved my life," explains Gareth.

His story is a harrowing but uplifting one. Seven years ago he was feeling suicidal as a result of seemingly never-ending operations and setbacks linked to the inflammatory bowel condition Chrohn's disease.

Sections of his gut have been removed and he is now left with less than an eighth of his original lower intestine. This means he can hardly absorb any nutrition from food.

He has a total parenteral nutrition (TPN) catheter in his chest, which he hooks up to liquids that provide essential minerals and keep him hydrated.

Gareth sank into a deep depression about his condition and decided he wanted to kill himself.

Lying in the bath he drifted in and out of consciousness after a cocktail of painkillers, whiskey and marijuana. His plan was to pull out his TPN line.

After an hour he looked down at his body in the bath. "I started to laugh," he says. "I had these jeans on, which were loose.

"Suddenly the thought came into my head that the jeans would probably fit really well now. It made me laugh so much that I realised I didn't want to do it and had more to live for."

Less judgemental

While Gareth's honesty and courage initially shocks the audience - who at first are a little unsure if they should be laughing at such sensitive material - it gains their trust and attention, and for many, proves to be one of most memorable parts of the show.

Suicide is the most common cause of death among men under 35
About 1 in 4 adults experience a common mental health problem during their lives
50% of people with common mental health problems are no longer affected after 18 months

The comedy has toured across London and the south east with audiences responding well to the mix of laughter and thought-provoking comment.

The next performance is in April next year at the Soho Theatre, London.

"I hope people walk away with a better understanding of mental heath, perhaps a little less judgemental and a little more empathy for someone they might meet who has challenging issues to deal with," says Gareth.

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