Psychiatric Nurse Turned Comic/Poet Rob Gee on the Empowering Nature of Comedy
Laughter has a vital role on any psychiatric unit. It diffuses tension, creates common ground and helps to put seemingly insurmountable problems into context. If you do it for the right reasons, it will always have a therapeutic value, because it transcends nurse/patient boundaries and allows you to relate to each other as equals. As someone I nursed once told me, laughter stops us feeling alone and strokes a broken soul.
With this in mind, I was recruited around twelve years ago to lead comedy workshops with people labelled as having “severe and enduring mental health problems”, who had expressed an interest in doing comedy. These workshops culminated in a live show as part of Leicester Comedy Festival.
The show sold out. Many in the audience were regular comedy goers, whose only knowledge of mental illness was either whatever was presented by the media, or someone they knew once having “a funny episode”. The show was a big metaphorical mooney in the face of preconception and we’ve performed at Leicester Comedy Festival every year since.
In the finest tradition of satire, we use laughter to question established practices within the mental health system. We expose the big lies (“You just need to come into hospital for a few days”) and challenge not just the established stereotypes, but also the more insidious ones, such as “creative genius”.
The process of creating comedy engages a range of skills, from teamwork and improvisation skills, to creative writing and editing. It helps reduce social isolation and empowers people by allowing them to ridicule some of the absurdities of the psychiatric system. Ultimately, there is no confidence-booster like making an audience convulse in mirth.
Any of us can have a psychiatric episode at any time in our lives, and we all have our own unique and beautiful ways of being ridiculous, whether we’re mentally ill or not. When life does take us too seriously, it’s more important than ever to find joy in everyday absurdity. And sometimes the psychiatric system itself is the easiest target of all.