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Melbourne Comedy Festival stars talk mental health and the serious side of funny business

A growing number of comedians are opening up to audiences about their dark and difficult experiences. We meet the stand-ups tackling the mental health stigma and find out how they look after themselves in an art form where the personal is professional

Photograph: Graham Denholm

If you think about it, April might just be the most emotional time of the year for the Melbourne Town Hall. Each night, every one of its rooms – some grand and elegant, others makeshift and cramped – will host a person opening up to strangers. Some will fire out peppy one-liners; others will go deeper, pulling out stories from their lives, spinning them into comedy, and hoping that people will laugh – and maybe even relate.

Comedians have the power to break down barriers around issues that we find difficult to discuss, reminding us that we’re not alone. Humour can help us heal. And increasingly, comedians are opening up about difficult periods of their lives and their experiences of mental illness. On television, comedian Maria Bamford sensitively portrays living with bipolar disorder in Lady Dynamite, and in 2014, Eddie Perfect performed a song titled ‘Don’t Kill Yourself’ for a mental health-themed ABC comedy panel show (making the point that you’d miss out on Game of Thrones).

On stage, comedians like Felicity Ward speak candidly about anxiety and depression. The Australia-born, UK-based comedian became a mental health advocate in 2014, when she created Felicity’s Mental Mission, an ABC documentary in which she revealed her own struggle with anxiety and interrogated the stigma around mental illness in Australia. As part of the documentary, she also began work on her 2015 stand-up show What if There Is No Toilet? – a candid (and hilarious) journey through her battle with irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety. “I started thinking about my IBS and writing jokes about that, and writing jokes about mental health, and it was exciting to have something scary to write about because you’ve got to work extra hard to make it funny,” she says.

“I just wanted to make people laugh… but the response has been incredible. I’ve had people write to me the next day and say, ‘I’m at the doctor’s surgery, I saw your show last night. I’ve been pretending I haven’t had anxiety for six months.’ It highlights that there’s not enough resources out there; they feel like a comedian is the only person they can talk to.”

Her latest show – which received rave reviews at the Sydney Festival and Perth Fringeworld – is called 50% More Likely to Die, referring to an alarming statistic about people with mental illness. “People have come to the show who have mental illness, and for an hour, they don’t feel like a weirdo,” Ward says. “Mental illness doesn’t get joked about publicity by the people who have it… and when I make jokes about mental health, it’s like we’ve got a club, and we’re actually the cool kids rather than the outsiders.”

That said, Ward is adamant that if we’re going to properly address Australia’s mental health crisis, comedy can’t be the limit. “The whole awareness thing is fine, it’s good to talk about it… but I’m interested in how the government is going to provide support. This is my lifelong dream: I would love to have free mental health treatment for Australians.”

Ward isn’t bringing 50% to MICF this time around, as she’s decided to cut down on her touring schedule for her own wellbeing. Which begs the questions: does delving into the darker sides of yourself have any side effects? What impact does a career in the cutthroat comedy industry have on mental health? And can seeing the world from a different perspective make it easier to find the humour in painful situations? Join us as we meet six comedians who are unafraid to go dark and deep – and find out how they look after themselves in the process.

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Laura Davis: "Everybody in the room goes 'Oh, me too! I didn't know we were allowed to talk about it!'

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Hannah Gadsby: "Pain only gets worse if you try and fight it, so you go into it"

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