Standup comedy course for men at risk of suicide wins NHS funding | Mental health
Standup comedy is regularly listed as one of the toughest jobs in the world, featuring heavily in 90% of people’s top 10 fears.
But a course helping some of the most vulnerable people in the country by teaching them to be comedians is proving so successful that it is being socially prescribed by NHS trusts and private practices across the country.
“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 standup 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 standup comedy course can help people to recover from emotional problems such as mental illness, postnatal depression, PTSD and anxiety disorders,” she said.
After completing a highly successful six-week NHS course for trauma survivors in Bristol, Comedy on Referral has now won NHS funding to help men at risk of suicide in London. Belcher is also in discussions with a private practice to extend the course to young people with autism and ADHD.
“My course for trauma victims encourages them to process their trauma in a different way, so they can change who the victim is and choose the narrative. They can actually go right down into ‘This is what I was thinking and then this thing happened to me’,” said Belcher.
“This 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,” she said. “You can speak directly to an audience about important things, which means you have the opportunity to change their lives. As a comedian, you could be the reason why someone in your audiences does something differently.”
Belcher’s course, initially piloted with Spear, the Wellspring Social Prescribing for Equality and Resilience team in Bristol, is the result of a year-long research project on the effects of comedy as a therapeutic device on people’s wellbeing and mental health.
The course takes clients referred by the social prescribing team through the writing, performance and analysis of their personal stories to create a five-minute standup comedy set, using games, group and one-to-one work.
This week, Belcher won a grant from the North West London Integrated Care System (NW London ICS), one of the largest health and care partnerships in the country working across 10 NHS trusts and eight London boroughs to achieve a national 10% reduction in suicides by 2020-2021.
Belcher will work alongside psychologists and men who have experienced suicidal events, to help up to 20 men aged 18 and over to take part in a comedy event at the end of the course for 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, which is distributing the NW London ICS grant. “This is a different way of engaging with this hard-to-reach group.”
Belcher said she is conscious of the fine line between telling personal stories and triggering former traumas. To prevent this, psychologists 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,” said 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 the UK, the youth suicide charity Papyrus can be contacted on 0800 068 4141 or by email at email@example.com. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org