In 2014, an Oxford University study surveyed more than 500 comedians on the topic of mental illness and discovered that the creative elements needed to produce humor are similar “to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.”
Living with a mental illness can be a burden, but comedy shows the importance of channeling depression and turning it into something positive. People can take their illness and put it toward whatever they find passion in.
Study author Gordon Claridge said comedians may use their acts as a form of self-medication. Dr. Michael Clarke, vice chairman for clinical affairs in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said research shows that creativity and mental illness often go hand in hand.
“People with a more creative side do seem to have a greater rate of mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder,” Clarke said. “We don’t know exactly why this is, but it could have a biological basis in the emotional centers of the brain.”
When comedian Robin Williams committed suicide in Aug. 2014 after a long battle with depression and addiction, it sparked a public conversation about the relationship between depression and comedy. Though Williams is the perhaps the most famous comedian who has committed suicide, people in the comedy world are no stranger to suicidal depression. As comedian Dana Gould puts it, “being a comedian means knowing a lot of people who’ve committed suicide.”
There is no consensus on the link between depression and comedy, but it seems many comedians experience some form of mental illness. Comedy used to center around silly jokes and slapstick punchlines, but the stand-up world today seems more tailored around life experiences, often tied with self-deprecation or some form of personal pain.
“Over the years, comedy has gone from happy-go-lucky pie-in-the-face jesters to the stuff of the deeply personal and honest with the coming of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin,” said comedian Jim Norton in his column for Time magazine. “The public began to see, through brilliant material and public battles with personal demons, that the people who made them laugh the hardest seemed to be enjoying life the least.”
Some may prefer light-hearted comedy, but the mixture of comedy and depression allows for a much needed conversation about suicide and mental illness. If comedians continue to open a dialogue about the subject, it will help eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health.
Writer and radio personality John Moe hosts a podcast called “The Hilarious World of Depression.” On the show, Moe speaks to different comedians diagnosed with clinical depression and discusses their experiences as an entertainer with mental health issues.
“We have a lot of laughs on this show. It’s a way of dealing with depression,” said Moe in a segment of his podcast. “It’s a way of knocking down the scary power of it a little bit.”
“Charles Darwin suffered clinical depression, yet he managed to come up with the theory of evolution,” Gould said in a column he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine. “Mozart, Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway all lived in prisons of their own thought. The roll call of contemporary artists who have suffered a depressive disorder is so long, they could save time by just printing up the list of those who haven’t.”
Without depression, some of the greatests artists, scientists and creators would be unknown to the world today. Someone suffering from mental illness may not be able to produce world-changing art or science, but their life is no less than any other life. Depression can weigh someone down, but it can also be a tool.
Society wouldn’t be the same without depressed people. Living with mental illness is tough, but it is better than the alternative.
Lynne Bunch is an 18-year-old mass communication freshman from Terrytown, Louisiana.