Humor me: Mental illness to mental wellness


DeAnna Hettinger

A mental illness diagnosis is no laughing matter. However, people with schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and depression, to name a few, are finding relief from the healing effects of humor.

I was diagnosed bi-polar years ago by a prominent psychiatrist in Marin
County. The funny thing was, I later undiagnosed myself. I remember
going into her office and saying, “I don’t think I am bi-polar, and she
said, “Maybe you’re not”. I went off the prescribed meds and felt
exactly the same as before I started the treatment. I don’t recommend
this as a way of determining your own mental soundness.

Since getting sober and over the past couple of years, I had my first
gift of a belly laugh and followed by crack up moments since then, which
at one time was just a distant memory.

Life brings challenges that either get the best of us, or we get the best out of them. The condition of our mental state has a lot to do with the thoughts we are entertaining. For example, how we handle adversity or choosing to act verses react. Medicated or not, a sense of humor can help us attain and sustain the desired mental equilibrium we are seeking. Just moping or barely coping? Don’t give up- lighten up and laugh your way to freedom.

Organizations such as Stand Up For Mental Health teach stand-up comedy to people with mental illness. Their acts look at the lighter side of taking meds, seeing counselors, getting diagnosed and surviving the mental health system.

Jeremy Hay, reporter for The Press Democrat, lectures candidly about his own experiences with bipolar disorder. He wants to make mental illness easier to “talk about, think about, and be around.” He says mental illness can be embarrassing, like when a CVS pharmacy technician yelled out, “Is this your Lithium?”

“I absolutely believe that humor is useful in dealing with mental illness,” Hay said. “One of the aspects of my mental illness, when I’m on the downside of bipolar, is that I lose the ability to look at myself or my life with any sense of humor. That makes everything darker and more grim and makes recovery so much harder. Laughing heals in that it relaxes you and lightens you,” Hay said.

Patch Adams is the founder of the Gesundheit Institute who has become world-famous as the doctor whose work inspired Robin Williams to portray him in the movie “Patch Adams.” Adams has devoted his life and medical career to the application of laughter and humor as the medicine that can both lift the human spirit and act as a source of healing. He has put aside many of the conventional perceptions of doctors and has made laughter and humor the primary prescription he and his staff dispense.

Norman Cousins, in his book “Anatomy of an Illness,” describes how he cured himself of a debilitating disease through the use of humor. He reportedly watched old Marx Brothers movies and laughed uncontrollably. He believes his own laughter cured his disease. He subsequently lived a long and healthy life — well into his 80s.

For other great sources of healing humor check out James E.F. Laundau’s “Anti-depressants” song on YouTube. “The Farting Hypnotist” audio with Adam Sandler is a hoot.
Other resources in Sonoma County include a Mobile Response Team for mental Illness crisis.
Humor breaks the ice and helps people feel more comfortable talking about mental illness. It helps build bridges to connect people living with mental disorders, to those who don’t understand the illness. The mentally ill matter. We need to weave them into the community; otherwise they will remain alienated.