Mental illness is a great source of pain for a lot of people. Knowing this, it doesn’t seem like the best source of comedy material. How can we joke about such a serious topic?
Based on a quick Internet search, the answer is: in a lot of ways. There’s an astronomical amount of memes and jokes about mental illness out there. Not only is it possible to laugh about it, but laughter is actually a positive and helpful way to approach what can potentially be a debilitating obstacle in our lives.
Bloggers and memes
When I was fifteen, I found a comedy blog called Hyperbole and a Half. The author had published a number of funny posts based on her own life, including her dogs, her childhood, and her significant other. But the one that really caught my attention was called “Adventures in Depression: Part One.”
By that time, I’d dealt with my own share of mental health problems. While I didn’t keep them a secret, I still struggled to talk about them casually, let alone laugh about them. This blogger didn’t seem to have a problem with it: she bared her soul to the world, in a way that managed to be simultaneously vulnerable and really, really funny. And people were receptive to it: the comments section was filled with fans saying “this is so hilarious and relatable, thanks for writing this”, or “I’ve never read anything so funny yet so accurate at the same time.”
Fast forward a few years: it’s 2019, and suddenly everyone seems a lot more open about their experience with mental illness. It’s become commonplace to tag one’s friends in memes about crippling depression or casual existential dread.
There’s a good reason why so many of us choose to laugh about our mental health problems: simply put, it feels good to laugh. When we laugh, our brains release natural opioids that are crucial for pain and stress regulation: that’s why laughing makes us feel more carefree, less anxious, and generally happier. In fact, the benefits of laughter inspired an Indian doctor, Dr. Madan Kataria, to invent a form of therapy called “laughter yoga.”
Having a good laugh is a great way to reduce our anxiety and improve our mood.
Aside from its neurological effects, laughter also plays a key role in social bonding: it brings people together. After all, few things in life feel better than sharing a laugh with friends - or even with total strangers!
All things considered, laughter is a pretty good defense against two of the main consequences of mental illness, negative emotions and social isolation. No wonder so many people turn to humor as a coping mechanism!
An antidote to fear
This kind of humor shows that people are now less afraid of mental illness and its stigma. But I’d go a little further: I’d argue that humor is also a way to make people less afraid. Sometimes, the best way to conquer our fears is to laugh about them.
There’s a perfect illustration of this principle in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At one point, the students of Hogwarts are introduced to a Boggart - a monster that takes on the appearance of their worst fear. In order to defeat it, they must concentrate and conjure up the funniest thing they can think of: once the monster realises that it’s being laughed at, it disappears.
Unfortunately, we can’t make our mental illness go away by waving a magic wand. But the lesson still applies: try to picture your disorder as a Boggart. If left unchecked, things like depression and anxiety can feel like they’re taking over our whole life: and the more we ruminate, the more overwhelming they become. Laughter has the exact opposite effect: it makes problems seem smaller and allows us the distance to see the big picture.
This isn’t to say that dealing with your mental illness will suddenly be a piece of cake. But after you have a good laugh and take a deep breath, you might just be able to tell yourself, “ok, this is scary - but it’s manageable. I can take care of this.”
A Time to Be Serious
While it’s great to be able to joke about mental illness, laughter is not a substitute for honest communication. If anything, we should use humor as a segue towards a genuine conversation. There are definitely worse defense mechanisms to have, but we shouldn’t get to a point where we can only speak about our mental health through jokes and memes.
If you think that your friend’s increasingly dark humor may be a cry for help, don’t be afraid to check in with them. Simply asking them, “seriously though, are you okay?” would suffice. Sure, it might feel a bit awkward to interrupt the laughter. But in the long run, you’ll be happy you did it; and chances are, your friend will understand and be grateful.
Laughing makes us feel better, whether it’s by producing feel-good hormones, or by changing our perception of our feelings. As long as we know when to get serious, finding humor in the darkest of times can be a great way to deal with life’s adversities. As the famous writer Melville said, “I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.”