For much of her life, Ashleigh Singleton did not have a whole lot to laugh about.
The 30-year-old White Rock resident was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 16. For two years prior, she had been hearing voices in her head tell her horrible things – that she should kill herself, that she was responsible for her mother’s death.
Afraid to tell anyone what was going on, she tried to bury the voices until she suffered from what she describes as a “psychotic break,” and finally received a diagnosis and treatment.
While medication has helped – along with the support of a father she says is her “rock and best friend” – her recovery over the past 14 years has not been without bumps in the road.
Late last year, when she was suffering from a bout of depression, Singleton’s dad, Mike, told her about a program coming to White Rock’s Whale House, a community clubhouse for people living with mental illness.
Called Stand Up for Mental Health, the class teaches standup comedy to people recovering from mental illness. Singleton had seen a performance by a SUMH group several years ago and recalled how funny the comedians were.
“I thought it was great that these people could get together and laugh about their illness and look at it in a lighter way,” Singleton recalled.
Along with a friend, Singleton – who speaks publicly around the community about her illness and recovery – decided to give it a shot.
“We just loved it,” she said. “There’s been a lot of laughs. We’re allowed to joke about other things, but the main emphasis is talking about our mental illness and our recovery and what we went through to get to where we are today.”
The program was launched in 2004 by Vancouverite David Granirer, who has spent nearly 20 years teaching a standup course at Langara College.
It was through that experience that Granirer – who suffers from depression – realized what an impact performing standup can have on people.
“I had a student with a fear of flying, and the day after our show she had to get on a plane,” Granirer told Indulge. “She came up to me and said ‘my fear is gone, I felt like once I did standup comedy, I could do anything.’ So I thought, wouldn’t it be great to give this to people, this life-changing experience?”
The response, Granirer said, has been beyond his expectations.
What started as a one-year pilot program quickly expanded throughout the Lower Mainland and beyond. The course has now been run by Granirer in 35 cities across Canada, the U.S. and in Australia, in partnership with local mental-health organizations.
Granirer said the art of standup not only provides a boost of confidence for participants, it gives them the opportunity to feel better about their experiences, which is no easy feat for someone who has been through the rigors of mental illness.
“When you have a mental illness, one of the big components often is a lot of shame,” Granirer said. “But by doing standup comedy and talking about these things, you’re getting a theatre full of people laughing and applauding, you start to think, ‘I’m not such a bad person after all.’”
While Andrea Hollebakken admits she never felt much shame about having bipolar disorder, there have been times that it has been difficult to be her usual ‘happy-go-lucky’ self.
The 33-year-old New Westminster resident was diagnosed at the age of 29, and though she spent a few months “grieving the loss of my former self,” she embraced her diagnosis and was quick to make fun of herself or be the “silly person” in the room.
For a few years, Hollebakken’s approach worked well, and along with spending time at Port Coquitlam’s New View Society (similar to White Rock’s Whale House), her recovery went relatively smoothly.
However, when she took a job as a peer-support worker for the Canadian Mental Health Association – which took her away from New View and exposed her to less-than-lighthearted situations – things got a little bumpy again, and Hollebakken was hospitalized twice.
When she was asked in December to take part in the White Rock SUMH group, she knew that although it was a long haul from New Westminster, it would be a good outlet to bring some laughter back into her life.
“It’s given me that place to go to make some extra silly jokes in a non-judgmental place,” she said. “My trouble is sometimes being a little too silly.”
While Hollebakken points out that her bipolar diagnosis has given her “endless material” with which to joke, for Singleton, it hasn’t always been easy to look at her mental illness as something that is humourous.
“When I started the course, I had a really hard time coming up with jokes and laughing about my situation. It seemed really wrong to me that I was trying to joke about it,” Singleton said, noting Granirer offered plenty of encouragement and never pushed participants to address the “raw stuff” if they didn’t want to.
“A few classes in, I kind of had an epiphany and said ‘you know what? I am going to laugh about this stuff.’ And it’s been amazing how it has allowed me to heal.”
Singleton and Hollebakken were among four standups who made their performance debut this month at White Rock’s Coast Capital Playhouse, for an evening of comedy that also featured a group of SUMH alumni.
While both women have plenty of experience speaking candidly in public about their illnesses, they said the experience did cause a few nerves when it came to cracking certain jokes in front of their friends and family members.
They both said they want to continue honing their standup skills and stay involved with the SUMH program, promoting what they describe as an “unreal experience” to those who may benefit from it.
“I want to participate in anything that can help get rid of the stigma of mental illness,” Hollebakken said. “I feel like since I have had a really good recovery journey, that it’s my responsibility to look out for my peers. There are a lot of people who don’t have their voice right now.”
Singleton agrees, saying she owes a lot to Granirer and the program, which helped her “out of a low place.”
“It helps so much to just laugh about it.”