Photo by April Plett
Do mental health and comedy go together? As we have been focusing on mental health for our next project, Breaking Through, we thought it would be important to explore the role of comedy. Andrew Lizotte is a Winnipeg-based artist, and like many of us, he is a jack of all trades; playwright, performer, dramaturge, comedian, and teacher. Last year Andrew was diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. Almost immediately Andrew did something that many people affected by mental health issues are never able to do; he went public.
“I went to the doctor and then an anxiety clinic. Wackiness ensued both times. I couldn’t not comment on it, because at the heart of things I’m a comedian”, said Andrew.
Like most comedians, Andrew often posts jokes and quips on social media. He had no idea that a post was about to change his life significantly.
“I made a harmless Facebook post about the irony of being left alone at the anxiety clinic and my life exploded”, he exclaimed “the outpouring of support was overwhelming.”
Exploring life is what artists do. But for artists who live with mental health issues, that can entail being incredibly public about something that you are still coming to terms with for yourself.
“I think whether you want to or not, you end up in your own work, and the more you can do that the better”, said Lizotte. “Audiences always want to feel like they shared a genuine moment. That said, if this hadn’t happened to me so abruptly it would have been years of me just sharing hints of self.”
When it comes to something as stigmatized as mental health, the process of going public can be stressful; at times it can be empowering, at other times discouraging. So many people keep their mental health issues a secret, even from friends and family, because the stigma surrounding mental health is still so pervasive.
“I wanted to ignore it. I was afraid of someone telling me I was crazy”, said Andrew. “Mental illness is a lot like cancer was in the 50s. You don’t talk about it and then you go off and maybe die. There is a huge amount of stigma and shame behind it.”
Photo by Leif Norman
Andrew remembers things happening quickly. In the early stages of coming to terms with his diagnosis, Andrew was already talking about it on stage in front of hundreds of others. “Suddenly I was doing a mood disorder gala at the Winnipeg Comedy Festival”, said Andrew, “suddenly I was playing a fundraiser at the Pantages Playhouse, suddenly I was doing speaking engagements at mental health clinics.”
Although being public about his mental health issues was overwhelming at times, Andrew believes that is has led him to have many conversations that we he would not otherwise have had.
“Oddly enough I was forced to do the healthy thing against my will and talk about my emotions” said Andrew. “It got me up in front of the best audiences of my life. Audiences that knew what I was going through and let me get as honest as I wanted. Now my voice as a writer/ performer has never been more clear and natural. I’m having the best shows of my life.”
Andrew is confident that he has benefited from speaking out, “To be frank I think I went through years of therapy in a matter of months.” But Andrew still worries about the consequences of being stigmatized.
In an upcoming documentary for the CBC Andrew will be featured alongside other creative people living with mental health issues. Although Andrew is proud to be a part of this project, he still has reservations when it comes to being so public with his mental health issues. “This documentary caught me in some pretty vulnerable moments. There were times I was in a really bad head space. So naturally I’m worried people will think that’s the real me. When the truth of me is much closer to right this moment.”
The arts are a forefront for discussing stigmatized issues that we are hungry but not always able to discuss with one another. Socially, we are in a place where we are starting to encourage people to speak up about mental health. It’s crucial that while we encourage people to speak up we also deconstruct the stigmas that make it difficult for them to do so.
“I’m very worried about how people will treat me after [the documentary] comes out” said Andrew. “At the same time I don’t deny that it’s all real moments that people may need to see to get a better understanding of mental illness.”
Andrew shared a list of some of the other things that have helped him through his experience from diagnosis to present date.
- The Canadian Mental Health Association. I got right in to talk to someone when I needed it. Go now.
- Growing a beard for the first time. A doctor told me to do it for at least a month. It looks terrible, but it teaches you patience, and I went outside feeling vulnerable and nothing bad happened.
- Taking everything I’ve learned from performing improv for years and making me apply it to my off stage life.
- A friend got me hooked on Buddhist meditation.
- Thank you letters from strangers who saw me speak at a clinic.
- Teaching kids. Most of my journey has been learning how to be as present as possible, and you have to be 100% focused with kids. They demand attention. Your problems and worries are automatically the least important thing in the room and it’s amazing. Also, talking to kids with the same problems I have, has taught me to be kinder to myself.
- One of those kids told me that she likes to make silly faces in a mirror till she feels better. So now it’s the first thing I do every day.
You can catch Andrew Lizotte performing comedy at Wee Johnny’s on April 29.