Mental health: Q&A with stand-up comedian Charlie George

Comedian Charlie George

Comedian Charlie George has joined the mental health debate. - Credit: Andy Hollingworth

A discussion around laughter, comedy and mental health will form part of a day of free online events this week.

Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health is this Friday (May 21) on Zoom webinars. It's free to register via Eventbrite, and you can dip in and out of the varied line-up.

A panel discussion around comedy will feature Tash Alexander, of Head Held High, a social enterprise which runs a motivational course called Stand Up For Yourself; stand-up comedian Rich Wilson, who hosts the Insane In the Men Brain podcast; and stand-up comedian Charlie George, who launched Crack-Up Comedy Cabaret in aid of Hackney mental health charity Core Arts and co-hosts the podcast Happiness...and How to Get It.

Ahead of the event, we put some questions to Charlie.

How important is talking about mental health in comedy for widening the conversation in society generally? 

"I think people can talk about whatever they like in comedy, but it's a great way to highlight the most urgent and pressing things for us as people, be that love, relationships, awkwardness and of course what's going on in our minds and the challenges we face there.

"I love how comedy is a space to be brutally honest about everything that's important to us and there's lots of great comedians talking about what it's like to live with conditions like OCD and how anxiety, depression, addiction and suicide/suicidal ideation affect us. Jack Rooke is a fab comedian and writer who does wonderful work talking about male mental health and has written a book called: Cheer The F**k Up How To Save Your Best Friend.

"I think the conversation is happening now, but what is still not so easy to share is our personal experiences. I think comedy gives us a space to be silly and ridiculous about pain in a way that relieves tension and allows us to both look at and laugh at it (Maria Bamford has a hilarious bit about bumping into someone she knows whilst on a psychiatric unit).

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"Comedy can't change the issues of poor mental health provision and cuts to mental health services that have a huge amount to answer for in terms of perpetuating the challenges people face in their daily lives, but it can shine a light on the experiences that lifts the feelings of shame and inadequacy people may feel for having mental health problems.

"Comedians are no stranger to pain and examining and facing their demons, it's part of their role, so when they do that in public ie talking about their neurosis and irrational fears on stage, they make others feel at ease with that reality."

How important is laughter, do you think, to wellbeing?

"I would say it's crucial. But I am of course biased! I think laughter is relief, it's also medicinal and freeing. It creates space for a different perspective on events and trauma.

"I used to work in a hospital in east London and there was so much humour on the acute brain injuries ward, people made fun of their pain and challenges all the time, even as severe as learning to wipe your bum with a different limb post stroke, or pretending to be electrocuted by equipment we were using and it brought people together and made them feel powerful, they had one over on whatever was happening to them.

"I always saw that as the irrepressible human spirit, the thing that has the last laugh in the face of adversity.

"I think the most I've laughed in my life has probably been in hospitals or at wakes!? And I think that's because that's where we needed it the most."

As a comic, does writing and performing help your wellbeing?

"Yes and No. Haha. I've got to be honest. 

"Yes on those days where I am "in flow." I've got music on and I'm full of creative juices and ideas and it feels magical to deep dive into playing with a scene, or a bit or a story and find angles, funny lines, or inventive ways of presenting and communicating a thought or idea to an audience. 

"And yes when I’m able to connect with an audience live and communicate my weird funny ideas in a way they understand and laugh at! There's no better feeling really (other than the rude ones).

"Other days it's a slog, like anything else and perhaps you've started a bit or scene that isn't where you want it to be yet, or is about a time in your life you're sick of looking at or thinking about and then it's probably not so great for your wellbeing to be wading into that territory over and over.

"Also some days you just don't feel very funny and it can be hard to access that state when you're in a foul mood or you've looked at ANY news. Sometimes the travel to gigs is long and/or scary and sometimes either you or the audience (or both) is just off and not able to connect and then you spend the journey home playing an awful annoying detective trying to find out what it was that went wrong, that's when you can (if you're like me) fall into beating yourself up and shame spiralling into a pit of despair about how you must never be seen in public again!

"But I am starting to find a balance with this now, there's tools and tricks to help you through the harder days, because they are inevitable and if you want to be consistent you have to not let your feelings deter you from the task of writing and performing, the only way to get better at anything is to be consistent and also I try this thing now where I imagine my niece or nephew coming off stage, or showing me a bit of their writing and there's no way in hell I’d just scream at them and tell them they were awful!? 

"I'd be super encouraging even if it wasn't great, I’d tell them to have another go and try again! 

"So that's helped a lot with the more challenging aspects for your mental health in performing/writing/trying to create anything and put it out in the world for others to see really.

"I play for progress now, not the highs or the lows, progress. Am I a little better at this than I was before? That's something my sensitive soul can work with."

Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health takes place on Friday May 21 and is free to attend for anyone who registers through Eventbrite. The events, which will be held as Zoom webinars, will include expert advice, panel discussions and some entertainment along the way.

The event is supported by Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, Thrive LDN and SANE. It is sponsored by Barnet Fostering and UCL Academy.

To register for free, click here

Tash Alexander, Charlie George and Rich Wilson at Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health

Tash Alexander, Charlie George and Rich Wilson join a panel on comedy and wellbeing at Ham&High: Our Community's Mental Health - Credit: Andy Hollingworth/Head Held High/Rich Wilson