Laughter the Best Medicine for Standup Comic David Granirer

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When I first contacted David Granirer and asked him to be a part of a series on prominent figures in the mental-health awareness movement, he was only too happy to oblige. A counselor, stand-up comic, published author and founder of the national program Stand Up for Mental Health, Granirer has been a pioneer in both the industries of comedy and mental health. Stand Up For Mental Health, which aims to empower individuals with mental illnesses through increasing their confidence and self-esteem, has advocated the healing powers of laughter to thousands of individuals across Canada.  Granirer is the author of The Happy Neurotic: How Fear and Angst can Lead to Happiness and Success, which aims to teach how an individual can attain psychological wellbeing while remaining neurotic. Granirer also maintains a counseling practice, teaches stand-up comedy at Langara College and conducts humor presentations for mental- health professionals and organizations. Understandably, with his hectic schedule Granirer was not an easy man to arrange an interview with.  After a series of back and forth communications I was fortunate enough to meet with Granirer in his home one sunny Sunday afternoon.

So David, let me get this straight. You are a standup comedian, you are a counselor, you are a published author and you’ve got two books out ...

One, really ...

And an e-book, is that right?

The e-book is just self-published, but The Happy Neurotic, that was actually bought by a publisher.

And you're a counselor, as well?

Yeah.

Is there anything that you don't do?

(laughs) Yeah, I don't know. Vacuuming, laundry, anything like that.

On your website, you talked about using humor as a way to increase wellness. 

 Oh, ok, there's some interesting research that finds that ... people who have a good sense of humor are more able to accurately appraise the amount of stress they have in their life.  And, of course, it's stress that creates a lot of our problems.  And if you're able to accurately appraise the amount of stress you have in your life, you're far better off than if you catastrophize. There's a fascinating study -- fascinating to me -- about these fighter pilots, naval aviators, who (spent) about eight or nine years in a Vietnamese preserve working. And at this point, they were tortured and starved and beaten and all that kind of stuff.  And normally, you find the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) rate in that kind of prisoner population about 50 to 90 per cent. But in this group, the PTSD rate was no greater than what you find in the general public. The researchers concluded that one of the things that made their PTSD rate so low was the amount of humor they used to cope with their situation. I think humor helps with wellness on a whole bunch of levels.

So is that the basis behind your book, The Happy Neurotic?

The Happy Neurotic basically says that you can be productive, happy and well-adjusted, while remaining as neurotic as ever.  And that actually, if you use you neuroses effectively, they can be a great source of motivation.

And do you believe that humor is also a way to increase self-esteem and wellness?

Definitely, definitely.  I think it's a real powerful thing to be able to make people laugh.  Really, it's real powerful, and it feels great, and I think that's part of what self-esteem is.  It's about learning how to make yourself feel good, and when you can do that, you feel better about yourself.

So it really helps individuals with a mental illness as well as the general public?

Yeah, I think so, because especially a lot of folks with a mental illness are invisible.  You know, people sort of ... you know, it's almost like, don't look at me, don't notice me, because if you do, you'll know that something's wrong. So it's real different for them to come out of that cloak of invisibility and actually take control of something and initiate something.  Which is really huge.

So humor is a kind of a way to tackle stigma and discrimination as well?

Mmmhmm. We have people coming to our shows. And I hear them talking after the show, and I hear them saying stuff like “Oh yeah, I saw that one guy on stage, and he had schizophrenia and he was hilarious!” How often do you hear the word schizophrenia and hilarious in the same sentence? It really presents a different picture of what mental illness is to people in the public. 

So how did you get interested in this work?

Well, I teach this standup comedy course at Langara College. I've been teaching it for about 12, 13 years now. And this course had nothing to do with mental health at all.  But occasionally I would see people come through the course, and they would have these personal transformations. Life changing experiences from doing standup comedy. And I thought wouldn't it be neat to use this in such a way that it creates a life-changing experience for people who wants it. And since my background's in mental health, and I also have a mental illness -- I have depression -- it just seemed like a natural place to do this kind of work.

And has it received a positive response?

Yeah, we've had overwhelmingly positive, from all different angles. The folks with mental illness really love it. Most of the service providers are really supportive.

So you have a professional experience with mental illness as well as on a personal level.

That's right. 

So you were diagnosed with depression.

It probably hit me when I was about 16, 17, but I wasn't actually officially diagnosed until I was in my mid-30s. At which point I went on medication and all of a sudden, it really completely changed things. It was amazing. Realizing that up to then, what I thought was normal wasn't normal at all. It was actually depression.

So what led you to realize that it was depression?

Well, actually, it was a psychiatrist I was seeing at the time for therapy. It took her a year and a half or something to convince me to try antidepressants. She kept on saying David, you're depressed. I didn't understand what she meant by depression. I didn't see depression as an illness. I thought depression meant you were feeling bummed out, which I was at times. I didn't see the connection between that and brain chemistry.  And then, of course, when I finally agreed to try it, it was like, wow … so that's what depression is. Depression isn't necessarily about feelings because depression creates bad feelings for no reason at all.

So what helped you on your recovery journey? You touched briefly upon medication and therapy?

Yeah, medication and therapy. Therapy was really helpful. Probably medication and therapy were the two main things.

You're open about your diagnosis now. What is a different story back in your 30s?

Yeah, it was one of those things where ... well, I was open to a point. But it was also one of those things where I sort of felt embarrassed about. Embarrassed that I was taking medication. Embarrassed to see a psychiatrist. And even now, even to this day, I think when I talk about my depression, there's still part of me that wants to add, “but I'm not crazy, I'm really ... really, I'm an OK person” and apologize for it. There's still that. Even though, you know, I work in the field, I deal with it all the time. So I think that stigma is really powerful.

Where do you think the stigma comes from?

Well, I think it comes from certain beliefs, misinformation out there in the general public. You know, we understand a broken leg. People can get that. You have a cast, you're wearing crutches. People understand that something's wrong. But with depression, people don't see anything wrong. They're like, you look fine. People don't understand. It's often seen as a sign that you're defective. There's something wrong with you, your willpower isn't strong enough, or you would just pull yourself up by the bootstraps and keep going, and you wouldn't need this medication stuff. And all that is for weaklings.

And do you think public opinion is changing?

I think it's changing, yeah. I think the generation coming up now, like my daughter's generation, and her friends ... I think it's much more accepted and understood than it has been ever before.

What do you think individuals with mental illness can do to tackle stigma and discrimination?

I think it's a tough one in the sense of how open do they want be about it? I've had people in Stand Up for Mental Health come and tell me stuff. There was one woman in the class, she started interviewing for a job. And she said, “I can't be in this class right now because I don't want my employer to know that I have a mental illness”. I totally understood. I said to her in an ideal world, you would be able to be in this class and not worry. But it's not an ideal world, and you really need this job. I think part of it is presenting a good role model to other people. Because I think sometimes people with mental illnesses fall into all sorts of self-defeating habits. That can include anything from bad hygiene, to bad eating, too much smoking, drinking, drugging, all that kind of stuff.  I think just being able to look like you're someone who takes care of yourself, I think when people see that (and) it helps to “de-stigmatize”. Also being able to talk about it quite frankly, without apologizing for it, I think that really helps. And then, of course, there's stuff like Stand Up for Mental Health, where you actually are really public about it and tell a lot of people.

What do you think are the biggest barriers to treatment for individuals with mental illness?

It's way too hard to access the system. I had a situation where one of my comics was going to psychosis. He was in the Downtown Eastside. He was homeless and he was suicidal. I tried to get him hooked up with a mental-health team down there and it took me three days of making phone calls before I was able to get him someone. And it was just dreadful, because I kept on getting “Oh, we don't do that”, “Oh, we don't ... no, no ... Call these people over there, and they'll take care of it.” And then I'd call those people, and they'd say, “We don't know what you're talking about”, you know, “We don't do that, I don't know why they were saying ... but try over here, try this number” and then I would get the same “Oh no, we can't” or they'd have all this criteria. One mental-health team said “We only see people with bipolar and schizophrenia, we don't see people with depression” and I said “but he's got bipolar, I mean look at his symptoms”. “Oh, but in our files, it says he has depression, so if he wants to change that, he can have an appointment with the psychiatrist in three months and get reassessed” and I'm like “well, he might not be here in three months." It was just maddening. I was thinking, you know, I'm a professional in this field and I can't even access the system. How are people who are going into psychosis, who don't even have a phone ... how are they supposed to access the system? So I think the barriers to treatment are just, there's just not enough of it.

There are not enough services?

There's not enough services, and it's not easy to access the ones that there are. I almost feel like there needs to be some sort of gatekeepers in the system where you phone one number and you say, so this is my problem, and it's that person who takes responsibility for finding you the right place to go, rather than ... because right now, no one's responsible. And I get the sense, too, that a lot of organizations are looking for reasons to not take people on. Their caseloads are already too big. And so they're looking to say no. And that's not a good place to start treatment from. Not at all. So, yeah, there needs to be better resources and better management of those resources.

Do you think this stems from a lack of funding? 

Oh, I'm sure funding has a huge, huge effect. I mean, I know that the mental-health funding in the past year took a huge hit. It seems to be one of the first things to go when there's problems with budget in terms of health care. Mental health is like the poor relative of physical health.

What advice do you have for family and friends of people with a mental illness?

Well, you can't rescue someone, but you can certainly be there as a listener and be supportive of that person. It's a good idea to get educated about whatever condition that person has so you're able to understand, OK, this is their illness talking. This is not a matter of a weak, defective person. This is depression, or this is bipolar, or this is schizophrenia, or whatever. Get educated and understand. And also advocate for that person. Because a lot of times it's hard to advocate for themselves, and they need someone who's willing to make phone calls and bug people, and, you know, get in their faces until someone says yes for treatment.

What about individuals with a mental illness? What advice do you have for them?

Treatment is crucial, and anything they can do to find a way to get treated. Get the medication they need, if that's what they need. Learn how to access the system, and learn how to work the system.

 

About the Author:

Emily Rose is an Australian/Canadian writer living in Vancouver. Passionate about raising mental health awareness, she has a postgraduate degree in psychology and has facilitated therapeutic creative-writing workshops for individuals with mental illness. When not working as a freelance editor and writer, she attends The Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University. She is currently editing a fiction manuscript and writing a narrative non-fiction novel about mental illness in North America. Her fiction, articles and other writings can be found at Written by Rose.

About the Photographer:

Brice Ferré is a well established editorial and commercial and portrait photographer in Vancouver, BC. He was born in Rennes, France. After graduating from film school in 2003, Brice moved to Paris, starting a career in the film industry and working on many movies including the acclaimed animal documentary March of the Penguins. In 2009, Brice decided to follow his long sought after dream and moved to Canada. His passion for photography soon became an obvious career and Brice decided to devote all of his time and energy doing what he loved most -- taking photos of people. Photographing not something he has created, but something he has witnessed, is what Brice loves most. See his work on www.briceferre.com and feel free to contact him about any photo project and he'll be happy to make it happen for you.

For more information about David Granirer, including a list of his presentations, products and services, visit:

http://www.psychocomic.com/

For more information about Stand up For Mental Health, see:

http://www.standupformentalhealth.com/index.shtml

For more information about David Granirer’s book The Happy Neurotic, visit:

http://www.thehappyneurotic.com/

 

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