Can suicide, and mental health at large, be funny? This isn’t the first time I’ve interviewed someone who believes it can, but perhaps no attempt survivor has taken on the question as directly as David Granirer. The Canadian founded and runs an organization that teaches stand-up comedy to people with mental health issues.
David sees his work as part of the growing outspokenness of the recovery and consumer-driven movement. “The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, ‘Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office,'” he says.
Here, he talks about taking his students to perform in psych wards, the scandal of a teen’s recent suicide behind bars in Canada and what happens when a psychiatrist takes the stand-up stage as well.
Who are you?
I’m David Granirer, a counselor, stand-up comic, author, speaker and a mental health consumer. I have depression. I run Stand Up for Mental Health, my program teaching comedy to mental health consumers as a way of building confidence and fighting public
And where are you?
How did you get to this point?
My depression started when I was 16 or 17. I attempted suicide when I was 17, and I was in the psych ward for six weeks. All the red flags were there. I look back, knowing what I know now, and I can’t imagine how they could have missed all the signs. No one caught it ’til my mid-30s. So from the time I was 16 til my mid- 30s, I just thought it was normal to always be depressed. I thought everyone was like that. I had no idea there was any other way of being.
Until I was about 26, I was a musician. Then I hurt my wrist. I played guitar but wasn’t able to play any more, so I went through a floundering-around period. I started doing volunteer work with the Vancouver Crisis Center, and it clicked. I met great people, they hired
me as a trainer, and I trained as a counselor.
Then, around the same time, I started doing stand-up comedy and was asked to teach a stand-up comedy course at a local college. This was 1998. It gave me the idea for Stand Up for Mental Health. I would see people come through the class and have these life-
changing experiences after doing their showcase. One woman said she had a fear of flying, then after our show, she got on a plane and didn’t have that fear anymore. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be great to give people this kind of experience!” I taught comedy to a group of recovering addicts, then cancer patients, some of them terminal, some in remission. Then I started Stand Up for Mental Health.
But you weren’t diagnosed yet, right?
No, I started it in 2004. I was diagnosed in 1993. Yeah, being diagnosed. I’ve done lots of therapy, but getting on medication made a huge difference. I know it’s fashionable in some places to be anti-medication, but anti-depression medication made a huge difference.
Are you still on it?
How has your group gone?
We started with one group here in Vancouver. The next year, there was a documentary called “Cracking Up” made on us in 2005. “Cracking Up” won a Voice award by SAMHSA, are you familiar with them? Thanks to the documentary, it really expanded my reach. Now I run classes all over North America. Basically, I’m contracted to run the classes by different mental health organizations in various cities.
Right now, I’m working with a group in Phoenix and I give classes via Skype. Then, at the end, I fly in and do a big show with the comics. I will also be running a group in Australia starting in the summer.
Is any subject taboo?
In Stand Up For Mental Health, the rule is nothing racist, sexist or homophobic. All the comedy is clean, no swearing, nothing obscene or grossly sexual. We’re often asked to perform in all kinds of places, military bases, correctional institutions, medical school
programs, government departments, corporations, universities, etc. We need to be able to go in and present a positive face of the mental health community. That certainly isn’t helped if people are gross and obscene. It’s really classy, well-done, clean humor. But other than that, people pretty much talk about anything: psych wards, hallucinating, times in psychosis, drug and alcohol problems, suicide attempts. Yeah, that’s pretty much whatever they want to talk about. You can see clips on the website.
Is it easy to find humor in a suicide attempt?
In some ways it’s a pretty black topic, but certainly we’ve had comics talk about it in acts and come up with really funny stuff.
Yeah. Actually, well, there’s one comic who has a great line, quite black, she says, and I’ll try to get the quote right, she says, “I’ve attempted suicide. Obviously I wasn’t successful, but I did learn one thing: that I CAN tie a knot to save my life.” So that’s an example.
When it’s mentioned, is it kind of fleeting, one joke, or is it all a comic
I don’t think anyone just talks about one thing in their whole routine. I think in stand-up you tend to talk about different things. So, no, there’s no one who does a whole routine on suicide.
Does anyone ever point it out and say, “I can’t believe you go there?”
I think sometimes people may be a bit taken aback, but they also realize that people are not making fun of suicide attempts, they’re talking about their own lives. So when you hear it in that context, it sort of takes the edge off. So people would hear it and say, “Oh wow,
that was a pretty intense experience that person must have had.”
Do you have your own joke about it?
Yeah, I talk about my own suicide attempt. To roughly paraphrase it, the joke is, people are really afraid to talk about suicide. My friend says, “I’m afraid if I use that word, it will give you ideas.” I say, “Listen, when I’m depressed, I think about doing myself in every second of the day, so if you ask if I’m suicidal do you really think I’ll say, ‘Wow, I never thought of that before’?” So people use terrible euphemisms. Like, “You’re not going to do anything crazy, are you?” “Like talk to an idiot like you?” When I tell the joke in Canada I say, “Someone asked me, ‘Are you thinking of going to a better place?’” And I’m like, “Hey man, I’m from Winnipeg, any place is better than that.” In the U.S., since most Americans aren’t familiar with Winnipeg, I use a local reference they can relate to. So basically, it’s a joke about how afraid we are to talk about suicide, and how important it is to bring it up.
(I mention my previous interview with Mike Stutz, who made a documentary about suicide that includes humor and who has faced nervous responses from some suicide prevention people.)
We’re not specifically a suicide organization. Since we talk about so many different things under the headline of mental health, that makes it more acceptable. In general, we’ve had very little pushback. In some ways, Stand Up for Mental Health is the right idea at the
right time. Right now, the recovery movement is pushing the edge. People are looking for new modes of recovery, new modes of spreading the anti-stigma message. The fact that we came along with a unique way of doing it has been picked up by a lot of mental
health organizations: “We’d love to do something like that.” There’s been a minority of cases where someone said they took it to the board: “Comedy? You can’t do comedy about this.” But usually, once they see the documentary, the resistance is gone. I send out tons of copies. Once they see it, they totally get it. I think they’re afraid we’ll trivialize the subject, make fun of it. But then we have fun with it. Mostly what I’ve experienced was enthusiasm, interest, positive interest.
Your website mentions that you’ve performed in psych wards. How did that go?
It’s gone great. People, when we’ve gone into psych wards, they love us, you know. The patients love it, the staff loves it. Let’s face it, it’s not a lot of fun to be in a psych ward, and it’s not fun to have a mental illness. People are dying to laugh. And when you give them a
chance to laugh about it, and the comedy is actually being delivered by people who’ve gone through what they’ve gone through, it’s very inspiring: “Wow, I have the same condition, and if they’re capable of doing that, I can do something amazing, too.”
What was the first time like for you, performing in a psych ward?
The first time we performed in a psych ward, it was a place called Riverview, one of the big ones out here, probably in 2004 or 2005. They actually asked us back every year, but the audience is getting smaller because they’re gradually closing down. The first show had
probably 200 or 300 people, the auditorium was packed with people, and it was hilarious. I think the last show we did, there were 30 or 40 people. Like I say, they’re closing down. I’m not sure, but I think they’re trying to get people back into the community. But yeah, it was
great because there was staff and patients.
It didn’t bring back any memories of your own experience, walking into that setting?
I think enough time had gone by, like 25 years, so no, it really didn’t. I think I was more concerned like I usually am with things like, “Do I have the order of comics right, what parts of the act am I going to do, etc.?”
Do you change the message depending on the place you’re in?
We’re going to be doing a show in a couple of weeks for a government organization. Certainly with them, it will be more mainstream. I’ll probably do the suicide joke, but what I find is if we’re playing to mental health consumers, we can push the edges a lot more. We don’t have to worry about them being taken aback about something that’s too black. For corporate or government audiences, we keep it mainstream.
Is there something you’d like to explore but is too over the line?
Not really. The only thing I haven’t found anyone make funny is the topic of sexual abuse. I just tell people to stay away from it, not because it’s a bad thing to talk about, but because I’ve never heard anyone find any humor in it.
I see you have a Wikipedia page, and I like that it has a note at the top that says, “This page has issues.” That was kind of cute. But maybe that’s an Americanism.
I’ve seen the page, and I know it says, “This page has issues.” They think it’s like a promotional piece. Someone wrote that a while ago. And I’m not sure, to me, it seems factual. It doesn’t seem too _ yeah, it’s out of date. I should get someone to update it. I don’t know quite what they mean.
Have you had any memorably bad responses to your shows?
In general, in terms of myself, I can remember some really bad comedy experiences at crappy bars, stuff like that, just dreadful. I can remember my very first comedy experience. I had wanted to do comedy for a couple of years. I finally got the courage to do amateur night at a local club and had no idea what I was doing. The club sat about 200 or 300 people, but only about 25 were there, just a sprinkling. An empty cavern. They put me up first, threw me to the wolves. I did five minutes of dead silence. So that was my first experience. I thought, “OK, no need to do that again.” I probably wouldn’t have gone back, but this comedy course came to Vancouver, and I took it. The next time I got up there, the club was packed with all our friends etc. I was an amazing audience, an amazing night. I was hooked.
Is there any group you’d steer away from in the future in the mental health routine?
Not really. I’d say sometimes some audiences … You know, it’s really hard to say. Basically, the overwhelming number are really good. Occasionally, you run into an audience that’s real quiet. Sometimes, in part, people in the audience were heavily medicated, not responsive. But there’s so little of that. First of all, people want to be
there, they’re up for it. For corporate and government groups, there’s usually quite a bit of buzz around it. People are excited: “Wow, how often do you have comics come into the workplace?” Some people, they’re intrigued: “Wow, they’re going to be talking about
mental illness?” There’s usually quite a bit of buy-in already. I make sure the comics have good experiences with comedy. We don’t do pubs unless we’re really clearly advertising what they’re getting. If it’s a drinking crowd on Saturday night, we’re not a good fit for that
because they want a certain kind of humor. When you’re partying on a Saturday night, you don’t want to talk about schizophrenia and suicide and all that. And so I screen all the venues really carefully. I think that’s been part of the success, getting in front of the right
Among the students, what moments stand out for you?
Probably I’ve taught since 2004, I’m thinking between 300 and 400 students across North America have taken the class. So, a lot of great moments. In terms of stories that stand out, there have also been a lot, so many. I’m thinking of one fellow featured in “Cracking Up.” Robbie Engelquist had just come out of Riverview after almost six months. He had finally stabilized. When he went in, he was really sick. He thought he had to drink his own blood; he was hearing demons, smashing his head against walls. Anyhow, he came out, and he was finally stable. But it was like he was dead. Unfortunately, the mental health system had nothing to offer him. He said, “I didn’t want to sit around all day going to groups and talking about my illness.” His mom found out about SMH and brought him to a show and he decided to take the program. But he was convinced he would fail. He had failed at everything. I mean, how do you pass school when you have undiagnosed schizophrenia? He was always in trouble with police, etc. But then he succeeded, then he succeeded again and again. He’s probably done 150 shows. He’s one of our stars. It’s completely changed his life. It’s the first time he got attention for something positive. That was in 2005. He’s still around doing shows with us seven years later. Yeah, he just turned into a really good comic, does rap music now, really cool stuff.
Is there anyone you feel you can’t work with, who doesn’t fit?
There have been a couple of cases. I remember we had one woman _ there are certain ground rules, ways of behaving, how to behave towards the class, etc. And also certain ground rules about stand-up comedy. One thing is, it’s all original material. You’re not allowed to steal jokes you read on the Internet or hear at parties and pretend they’re your own. It’s just not done. It lessens the value of the act. The cool thing about stand-up is that you’re doing something the audience can’t do, and if they see you doing jokes they’ve heard they think, “That’s no big deal, I can do that.”
Long story short, one of the comics was doing that. At first, I didn’t realize it, but people started coming to me: “I’ve heard that joke.” I did research. So basically I said, “It’s gotta be original.” She got really angry. She said in her culture they did that (used other people’s
material), and it was OK. I was like, “Um, no. This is stand-up comedy. I don’t care what you do in your culture. These are the rules you all agreed to. You know, if you’re not willing to play by them, you can’t be in the program.” At that point, she lost it on the class, and it
was easy to say, “You can’t be here.” So yeah, a small minority. I can think maybe two or three, who were not let in or asked to leave.
Going back a bit, you mentioned that the recovery movement is kind of on the cutting edge? What does that mean?
There’s a lot recovery through the arts. So people are putting on plays, one-man or one-woman shows about their stories. Ways of reaching the public that way. People also do artwork, paintings, sculpture. So I think the recovery movement, consumer-driven, is
very progressive in the sense that it’s not willing to settle for the medical model that says, “We need to get you on the right meds, and that’s it.” Meds have helped me, but meds alone are not recovery. I think the bottom line, and most people would agree, is that recovery means you have meaning in your life, whatever that meaning is for you. A lot of people find meaning in the arts and explore their talents.
We have a place here in Vancouver, Gallery Gachet, for people with mental illnesses to do their artwork, do art shows. I also work with this organization in Norwich, Connecticut, called Artreach, and they do recovery through the arts. Their big thing is to put on plays, sketch comedy, and they also have a Stand Up for Mental Health group. And yeah, they’re all peer-run, by people who have a diagnosis.
The recovery movement is a big movement, much more so in the U.S. than Canada. You guys have a much more organized, cohesive movement. And every year, you have an Alternatives Conference. I did a keynote there once on my own, about half comedy and half talk, about my program. And last year, 2012, they had it in Portland, and we did a Stand Up for Mental Health show because we have a group in the Portland area. It was really cool. We did a show for the whole conference. So Alternatives is a great example. You see the power of the peer movement. It’s great to see because you meet people
who’ve been involved in the movement for a long time, like the elders who have been around since the ’60s and ’70s, who can tell you what it was like back then: forced shock treatment, lobotomies, all sorts of horrible shit, how far we’ve come, how far we still need to go.
How much farther does it need to go? What would you like to see?
Well, sort of where we’re going is peers. Most mental health agencies now have peer specialists who work for them. So they’re actually considered an important part of mental health system. So peers are working on multidisciplinary teams, leading workshops, all sorts of stuff like that. Also, peers are helping people coming into the system find the help they need. So yeah, it’s really wonderful. I think there needs to be a whole lot more of it. The idea about peers is educating people to educate themselves as opposed to having a psychiatrist come in and say, “Take this. Don’t ask any questions. Your five minutes are up. Get out of my office.”
I did an event for Seven Counties in Louisville, Kentucky, and I worked with their peer staff. One woman was amazing. She has bipolar, and at one point the psychiatrist said, “You’re bipolar. You’ll be sick the rest of your life, you’ll never work again, you’re gonna get dementia and die.” Since then, she’s gone on and pretty much trained all the peer support workers in the state of Kentucky. She’s trying to retire right now, but they won’t let her go. She’s had an amazing career. So this person, who according to her psychiatrist
was supposed to be a useless member of society, found out single-handedly about the recovery movement and brought it to the state of Kentucky. And so I think there are still places where the medical model prevails, still a struggle going on, where those
interested in the medical model don’t want to give it up.
Are things different when it comes to people with suicide attempts or suicidal thinking?
Here’s where I think the peer model is so great. Whatever the issue is, including suicide, you would think a lot of people have been trained as peers. They’ve been through it, psych wards, suicide attempts, often numerous suicide attempts, they’ve experienced being treated against their will, all sorts of stuff. I’m thinking of some people I know. Who better to work with for someone who’s suicidal than someone who’s been through it? Obviously, I think medical specialists have a place too, but I really think that well-trained peers are just a huge asset for whatever the issue is. And personally, I think, especially with suicide.
We just had this case here in Canada, a horrendous case. This girl, Ashley Smith, was in prison. I think she was 17 or 18. She was put in prison for throwing apples at a mailman. So she was acting out. She obviously had a mental illness, but the morons in the corrections service gave her no treatment, just locked her up in seclusion and made it worse. She was transferred so many times in the space of two years. She kept trying to kill herself, and she got the reputation for being a really difficult prisoner. They kept drugging her, putting her in seclusion. They have video with her on a plane with her hands
duct-taped to the armrests. And in the videos, the corrections people say she was dangerous, but she seems to be quite cooperative. Long story short, she finally succeeded. What happened is, the guards kept getting different orders. First, if she tried to suicide, they were supposed to stop her. Then they got other orders: Stop her only if she
stops breathing. So she succeeded in killing herself.
And Corrections Canada videotaped all these incidents and then spent millions on lawyers trying to make sure the public didn’t see the videos. Finally, these videos came out, and there was a huge outcry: “What the fuck did you do with this person?” She had a
mental illness, and being in the system made it a million times worse. She received absolutely no treatment. So, yeah.
You know something, I get so pissed off I can’t remember the point I was trying to make. Whatever I was saying.
I’d have to scroll back … Oh! I remember.
I read accounts that she was trying to strangle herself seven or eight times a day. She really could have used really good peer support. Other stuff, too. But sedating her, seclusion, duct-taping her arms, I mean, they need some peers in that correctional system to make sure hat never happens again. And they need peers with the power to
make decisions, not just a token hire, “We’ll just hire one person and have them empty ashtrays.” Someone with some power to change the system.
(I mention peers in the sense of support groups and the fears that suicide attempt survivors would inspire each other to kill themselves or refine their methods.)
I think once again, that’s the kind of uninformed _ you know, like, my thought is, “Why don’t you ask people if they want a support group like that, rather than make the decision for them?” In class today, one woman was saying, “I don’t go to support groups because it makes me more bummed out.” My thought is, first, “I don’t blame you.” Also if that’s all groups are, I don’t think they’re very well-run. Yes, you need to be able to talk, but if all people are doing is talking about how terrible their lives are, yeah, I think the group needs to be more than that. I think we need survivor groups, and my guess is, most people
who have survived suicide attempts want that and don’t want to be left on their own.
In the professional world, the psychiatrist people, how is their sense of humor?
Most psychiatrists I’ve encountered have a great sense of humor. One performs with us regularly. Also in Ontario. It was fabulous, they were in the green room before the show and they were just as nervous as the comics. The boundaries melted away. They weren’t
on that psychiatrist pedestal. In general, they had a really good sense of humor and welcomed this project.
In general, how do you break the ice on this subject?
Like in our daily lives? I think two things. Two different perspectives. If you suspect a friend is going through a bad time, it’s important to be direct. It’s a huge relief if you say, “Are you thinking of committing suicide?” Because finally, someone gives them a chance to talk
about it, rather than sort of pussyfooting around it, like, “Are you thinking of going to a better place?” Just ask someone directly.
I think that if you are someone considering suicide, obviously it’s a lot harder. It’s really hard to go to someone, “Hey, I’m thinking of committing suicide.” Sometimes, the best place to start is a crisis line.
What if it’s in your past and you want to bring it up? Like, while you’re getting to know someone?
I think people have pretty good instincts. Obviously, it’s not something you’re going to talk about over coffee on a first date. I think most people have a sense when a relationship, a friendship, is building toward a place of trust. So yeah, I think I would say use your instincts
because they’re usually right. Some people are ready to talk about it. It depends on the responses they’ve had.
Where else do you want to go with this?
What usually happens now is that an organization will contact me and have funding for a group, then there’s no more funding and it doesn’t continue. What I’ve been doing is creating another phase when the initial program is over. The comics then have monthly classes and continue performing. I want to have more of these ongoing groups in cities across North America. Australia is also looking pretty good, maybe the UK, New Zealand. Obviously, I don’t speak any other languages.
What’s your favorite memory from this work?
So many great experiences. I guess I’d say my favorite part is once the group is trained. I love the experience of flying wherever and doing a show with them. It’s such a wonderful experience, meeting the group in person, watching them step through that ring of fire. How
great they feel. And so I guess what I would say is, I love performing, but I also love making other people into the stars, giving those who never had that to the chance to be a star.
Who else are you?
I’m pretty ordinary. I have two kids. A 14-year-old boy who actually has been doing stand-up comedy since he was 5. He’s done shows talking about what it’s like to have a dad with mental illness. He’s taken a break the past couple years, but he’s coming back to it now. My daughter is awesome, 21, in the third year of university. My great wife and I have been together 16 or 17 years. I have two wonderful cats. Yeah, when I’m not on the road, I have a pretty ordinary life. I enjoy that ordinariness, no drama, no chaos. Sort of a really nice happy life.
I had meant to ask earlier if you ever get tired of talking about mental health issues.
No, I enjoy it. It’s something really important to me. I find I’m one of those people who has to be doing something he feels is important. I’m really intense, passionate about things important to me. This is one of them.