Owen Redden walks out into the middle of the room, head down, and says, “I’ve got my new boots on, and I’m ready to go.” Then he looks up at the audience and says, “I’m a paranoid schizophrenic. Why are you all here?”
The audience chuckles awkwardly until Redden laughs himself, then the room gets swept up in the joke.
Redden is in the waiting room of the Early Psychosis Program at the Abbie J. Lane Memorial Hospital. It’s been transformed for the evening into a performance space for the Halifax chapter of Stand Up for Mental Health, a comedy troupe whose members’ humour is based on their experiences with mental illness.
“Want to find out how fast you can run?” Redden asks. “Try leaving the psychiatric ward without permission and see how far you can get.”
“The thing that I love about Owen is that it’s all real,” Wayne Schnare tells me. Schnare, a part-time radio host and music festival MC, has been part of Stand Up for Mental Health since 2009. “None of that is fake. If you talk to him on the street he’ll laugh and giggle just as much there as on stage.”
David Granirer, who teaches a comedy course at Langara College in Vancouver, founded Stand Up for Mental Health in 2004. “I’m a counsellor, I’m a standup comic, and I have depression—so I’m kind of the perfect person to run this program,” he says. The idea came to him when he saw some of his students have life changing experiences through their comedy.
He says Stand Up for Mental Health is “like a supercharged support group. You can have someone say, ‘I was in the psych ward’ and then say, ‘Wait that will make a good comedy bit… ‘ How often do you hear the words schizophrenia and hilarious in a sentence together?”
The program, which now has chapters in Canada, the U.S., and Australia, came to Halifax in 2009. The Healthy Minds Cooperative, which offers peer support and other services for people with mental illnesses, had received a grant to bring in Granirer to teach a 20-week standup course. The course ran the next two years as well, and a core group of those who were trained continue to perform several times a year throughout Nova Scotia.
Schnare has been involved with the group since that first Halifax session. “The comedy has changed my life,” he says. “It’s so rewarding. I’ve been doing this since 2009 and I still write jokes almost every day.”
Early on in the show, Schnare warns the audience that some of the jokes may seem raw: “but these are our stories, and if we lived through it and can laugh at it, so can you.” He tells me some audience members have complained in the past that jokes about suicide are inappropriate.
“Suicide is never appropriate, but I’m the one that lived through it,” he says. “I’m the one who was going to hang myself, I fought those demons and now I can look back and laugh in their face. That’s the thing about Stand Up for Mental Health. You take people who are scared of themselves, their world, their illness, and all of a sudden they become warriors. They stand up to all of those fears and they crush them and in the process they educate people that their misconceptions are wrong.”
Brenda Preeper became involved after seeing Schnare give a talk on mindfulness in October 2011. She says he mentioned comedy “and I told him that I’d been told all my life I should be a standup comedian or write a book.” The next course was starting in a few days, and Preeper, a retired health records administrator, signed up.
It was a big step for somebody terrified of public speaking. (“The only part of my body that wasn’t completely paralyzed when I had to speak in public was my bladder,” she says.) Preeper, after all, had dropped out of medical school in the early 1970s after she “went completely and utterly to pieces” having to do class presentations.
Halfway through the Stand Up for Mental Health course she had to perform with the group at the Atlantica Hotel, and before going on stage she was “in the washroom blubbering my face off saying I couldn’t do it and wanted to leave.” But she persevered, and “partway through, I looked around the room and then I said ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this.’”
At her second performance, Preeper completely forgot a punch line and the audience didn’t even notice. Since then, she’s learned some tricks. “You can always fall back on, ‘I’ve just started a new medication and one of the side-effects is memory loss,’” she says. “And then later you can say, ‘Did I tell you I started a new medication?’”
Although she’s comfortable going for a laugh, she says she still can’t speak in public unless she’s doing standup. “I don’t know if I can get up and talk seriously,” she says. “But I can tell jokes.”
For Schnare, comedy is a way to combat his own depression and anxiety. (“Every year Capital Health has a Mr. Depression competition,” he says. “I filled out the paperwork, but they rejected me because I was overqualified.”) But it’s also a way to educate people about mental illness, and it’s helped create deep friendships.
“I can tell you this much,” he says. “The people that are in each of the classes, the core of the comedy troupe, we have a bond now that will never be broken.”