A course helping people with mental health by teaching them the skills of a comedian has been so effective it is now being socially prescribed by NHS trusts and private practices to help men at risk of suicide.
While comedy features in 90% of people’s top ten fears, it is hoped Comedy on Referral could now help men suffering from suicidal thoughts, following a successful course in Bristol for trauma survivors, The Guardian reports.
“I’ve taught comedy for 10 years and students often told me how much stronger, more resilient and happier they were after exploring their personal histories through stand-up comedy,” said Angie Belcher, founder of Comedy on Referral and comedian-in-residence at Bristol University.
“That inspired me to prove that the models, exercises and games used in a stand-up comedy course can help people to recover from emotional problems such as mental illness, postnatal depression, PTSD and anxiety disorders.”
Speaking on her course for trauma victims, Belcher said it “enables survivors to consciously use comedy to change their perspective of their experiences, but it also puts them in a physically powerful position because being on stage is very powerful”.
The course comes from a year-long research project to find out the effects of comedy as a therapeutic device on people’s wellbeing and mental health. It was piloted with Spear, the Wellspring Social Prescribing for Equality and Resilience team in Bristol, running for six weeks.
For those referred via social prescribing, which enables GPs, nurses and other healthcare professionals to refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services, it takes them through the writing, performance and analysis of personal stories needed to create a five-minute stand-up comedy set. This will be taught with games, group and one-to-one work.
Belcher won NHS funding to design and deliver the new project from the North West London Integrated Care System (NW London ICS), which is working across 10 NHS trusts and eight London boroughs to achieve a national 10% reduction in suicides by 2020-2021.
While the course, to be distributed via Rethink Mental Illness, is focused on helping men at risk of suicide, Belcher is also in discussions with a private practice to extend it to young people with autism and ADHD.
She will work alongside psychologists and men in need, to help up to 20 men aged 18-plus to take part in a comedy event at the end of the course, with an audience of at least 100 people.
“We’ve never done anything like this before and we’re very excited about it because we’re hoping it will reach men who, even though they’ve been diagnosed as at high risk of suicide, don’t think they have an issue and so won’t go to counselling or attend anything signposted ‘suicide prevention’,” said Lourdes Colclough, head of suicide prevention at Rethink Mental Illness.
“This is a different way of engaging with this hard-to-reach group.”
As Belcher is aware of the fine line between telling personal stories and triggering former traumas, the paper reports, psychologists will support participants during their introduction to therapeutic writing techniques while local services, GPs and Samaritans are signposted throughout the course.
“I hope that participants will use what they learn on the course in their practical everyday life, so that they go into future endeavours with joy, hopefulness and playfulness rather than taking out their bully teenager-persona or their depressed 20-something persona or their grieving mother-persona or whatever it is,” explained Belcher.
“I want participants to leave the course with a different part of themselves – their comedic persona – so that they can enjoy their lives in a different way and hopefully in a better way.”
In a blog post written by Will Reynolds for Disability Arts Online, Belcher also previously said of her course, “I’m not implying that this should take the place of traditional clinical approaches, but similarly to art or drama therapy, this course is a complementary one which is there for people who normally wouldn’t be able to access my workshops.”
Watch: How can I improve my mental health?
For anyone who needs help with how they are feeling, there are many people willing to help. You can call Samaritans day or night, 365 days a year for free on 116 123, email them at [email protected], or visit www.samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.
If you are suffering from mental health problems you should also speak to your GP.