What Are We Laughing At?


Click to read Cate’s bio

In the playground of mental illness there is always a risk that someone is going to get hurt when people start telling jokes.  It’s like everyone has their own limit of what is acceptable and what is incredibly bad-taste.  A few weeks ago UK comedian and mental health advocate Stephen Fry found this out for himself.

He got roasted on Twitter for a joke he made about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) ( see David Adam’s comment on Guardian).  The backlash began to hit.  Fry was attacked for joking about OCD  when he “didn’t have OCD”.  Apparently it’s okay to joke about an illness you have yourself but not any other.

Actually Stephen Fry does have OCD so considered himself worthy of making such a joke and a few terse words by Fry saw the whole thing die down.

It raises the issue though of what is okay and what is not when it comes to jokes about mental illness.  Social media is overflowing with the jokes. memes and one-liners. It leaves me wondering just what that comic relief does for the world we live in.

I’m fairly sure that most everyone who tells these jokes will have an opinion on what is okay and what crosses the line to being bad taste and even stigmatising.  I totally accept that my opinion is just one, and may not be something you agree with.  That’s okay.  What I really want to do is get us thinking about what we’re doing in sharing these jokes, and to be very sure of exactly what it is we are laughing at and what effect it has on the greater world of mental illness.  What too, does it do to those individuals who experience the issues we choose to laugh about.

Think about this for a moment… where do everyday people get their information about mental illness and what it is like to live with?  There’s really not that much information out there, unless you go specifically hunting for it and that makes me think that people get their information from movies, television, news stories and jokes.  From the media.  Personally I find that a little frightening because too often it’s not very accurate.

Here’s a one-liner I saw on Facebook a while back:

“Go ahead, be the reason I get off with an insanity plea.”

So there’s a funny side to that?  But what if that is, but a small amount of information, someone reads about those of us with mental illnesses.  It reads to me that we’re all just waiting for our violent moment, then to be forgiven because “we’re mad”?  You might take other interpretations from it.  Perhaps it is a comment on mentally ill people who have committed a crime and “got off”?  And then maybe it’s just funny, and we need to loosen up and laugh at it?

On a similar note:

“FYI: Before you choose to piss me off I suffer from a mental illness and could easily kill you and plead insanity… have a nice day.”

That might be hilarious.  But then it might ‘educate’ the person reading it to believe that all people with mental illness are dangerous.  If we’re posting a joke like that, then no wonder we have an issue with stigma.  If the reader doesn’t have the accurate information on how dangerous or otherwise mentally ill people are, then I suggest that this joke will just heighten their fear of the mentally ill.

There’s a meme that does the rounds on a regular basis, but of course wouldn’t you know it, I have been able to find it when I want it.  You might remember it.  It speaks of aspects of life inside a mental hospital, somewhere I know only too well.  There is talk of peeing your pants, rides in the ‘special bus’ and of course, licking the walls.  The question I ask is whether these are the aspects that are accurate and realistic?  Do they tell about life as it is inside a mental hospital?

I admit I have peed my pants in such a place (my muscular reaction to ECT) but most people don’t.  The special bus?  Yes, I have been on a few of those.  But licking the walls?  That’s not one that I’ve done, and actually in all my hospital admissions (and there’s more than I can count) I have never seen anyone else do this.

No doubt someone will tell me they’ve witnessed the licking walls, but it still doesn’t strike me as an accurate reflection of life inside.  And even if it was, is it fair to make a joke out of someone doing this in their distress?  Personally, I don’t think so.

I think jokes about mental illness have their place, and yes it’s good to be able to laugh at ourselves.  But I think we have to be very careful.  There’s not that much accurate information out there about mental illness, and if we add to that with inaccurate or unfair material then we simply add to misinformation and ultimately stigma.

I was terrified when talk of admission to hospital began for me (this was back in the mid 1990’s).  My knowledge of hospital was books/movies like One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and An Angel At My Table.  Both are historical accounts but that is all I had to base my decision on.  Patients in mental hospitals don’t tend to get many visitors, so where do people get their information from?  How do they know that actually admission will be a good thing.  It took me weeks to get past my prejudice and accept that it was where I needed to be. ‘Nut house’ and ‘Looney bin’ were the words that came to mind, and as ill as I knew I was, I was sure these words didn’t need to apply for me.  When I got past the inaccurate information I actually allowed myself to be admitted to a place that saved my life.

I think that it is important that we don’t falsify or scandalise information on mental illness.  It’s hard enough to get accurate information right simply because most of us don’t talk about it.  Yes, we’re scared of the stigma… and rightly so at the moment.  We need to be careful that the information that is circulating is firstly accurate but also doesn’t make fun of a person’s suffering and distress.

If we want to tell jokes about mental illness, let’s make sure they are accurate and not stigmatising.  Let’s not inadvertently add to the battle we already have.

What do you think?

© Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


41 thoughts on “What Are We Laughing At?

  1. Reblogged this on Big Blue Dot Y'all and commented:
    I really appreciate this perspective. I also want to be able to laugh at something inappropriate. It is a similar conversation for me as the one currently raging about Trigger Warnings. I can see both sides of the debate clearly and although I care deeply about not causing harm, I also know that we are stronger than we think and I don’t want to live in a culture that prizes appropriateness over authenticity.

    • Thanks Kristen. I actually share a similar internal debate about trigger warnings. I know it’s hard to get it right for everyone but I do believe that if we focus on what is authentic, then we are headed in the right direction. Thanks too, for the reblog. I really appreciate it.

    • How interesting, my next post for Canvas, which is already scheduled, is about trigger warnings. And my last post on my personal blog was about laughing at ADD jokes and not being interesting on being offended by them. Great minds think alike, I guess? 😉

      You are so right Cate, it is so hard to get it right for everyone. But I am also of the thought that I don’t want a culture that prizes appropriateness over authenticity. Being Canadian, I see that every day. It seems that our society is all about “political correctness” which I think sometimes can gets served with a side of ludicrousness.

      The most important thing methinks is that we continue the conversation. I strongly believe that only through open dialogue and compassionate discussion, can we find what works best for everyone.

      • Can’t wait to read your next post on triggers. It’s time someone wrote about those. As for jokes I agree that we need to strive for authenticity, and perhaps especially authentic compassion. Political correctness has no place if it’s just doing it because I should. The idealist in me wants people to actually care about what is right.

        I admit that I do get offended by jokes at times and I personally think it’s a good thing. Certainly not to the point of getting stressed but that offence (and I’m not sure that’s the right word for me) is good if we’re prepared to say something isn’t right. When I get ‘offended’ I don’t always say anything. Actually most of the time I don’t because actually people don’t care. But I think there comes the time that we have to be prepared to stand up for what is right, even if it is a simple joke.

        I think it’s great that you laugh at ADD jokes rather than be offended. I guess I just get concerned for two things. Firstly, how do others with ADD feel but perhaps most importantly what does the joke tell those who know nothing about ADD. In the absence of any other information, do they just (probably unconsciously) take it as truth. That’s where I get concerned.

        I couldn’t agree more than “but it is a reality that some people are too quick to take offense and that some other people are too quick to be assholes.” I think that sums up the problem.

  2. Great post :), there are so many jokes going around about mental illness (“if you’re crazy and you know it, shake your pills”) that are so hurtful and so cringy and enough to drive anyone who’s taking pills completely off the edge. Nobody, who is already feeling very vulnerable and trying to seek empowerment, needs to be labelled ‘crazy’. More education around mental illness needs to be spread, definitely. We’re all people and deserve to be treated like people. When was it ever right to pick and choose who to make fun about? How is this any different from racism or discrimination against people with physical and learning disabilities..

    • You’re so right. Our society is learning not to make jokes at other people’s difference. It should apply to mental illness too. As you say what we need is empowerment rather than what is often our worst fears. It’s good to be reminded that we are people too. Yes!!!

  3. Reblogged this on Jody's Scribbles and commented:
    This is a great post because it’s time we realised just how many jokes there are going around about mental illness (“if you’re crazy and you know it, shake your pills”) that are so hurtful and so cringy and enough to drive anyone who’s taking pills completely off the edge.. How is this any different from racism or discrimination against people with physical and learning disabilities? When is it ever ethically and morally right to pick and choose who to make fun about? We should be caring for each other and empowering one another, we’re all people. Read Cate Reddell’s post about what she thinks 🙂

  4. Wow, I’m glad I haven’t come across any of the jokes you have mentioned. They are not tasteful in my opinion. I’m sure we can come up with something better!

  5. Good point. I am the first person to laugh at myself and the silly stuff I do.
    When it comes to my stay(s) at the hospital, it brings me peace because while I was there I was safe, people were there that believed my and my feelings and to help me, help myself get better.
    Outside of those walls is a hurtful world, with some ignorant people.

  6. I do comics and frequently use humor to cope with my illness. I think with a storytelling comic format though, you have a chance to present someone with mental illness as a full personality, not just a one-note “I’m crazy” type of gag.

    For the two memes above I think the first one is not only better written (the second is overly wordy for a one-liner), it could be taken as saying the person being spoken to is so annoying that anyone would excuse someone being driven to kill them. The second one focuses on the speaker having a mental illness and this being a “convenient” excuse for them to kill people. (as if an insanity plea allows someone to go free anyway…it means hospitalization rather than penitentiary, right?)

    • It’s getting really scary when we talk (and joke) and killing someone as a convenience. What on earth are we doing to humanity? I like what you say about presenting someone with a mental illness as a full personality. I think society often misses that out and what we see is the gag. From that society makes a lot of assumptions. As for “hospitalisation rather than penitentiary” I really hope so, but then I’m also so aware of how many serious mentally ill people end up in prison simply because of resources and attitudes (in my opinion). But then that’s a whole other discussion…

  7. Even though I like to believe I’m someone that is perceptive and intuitive about being sensitive to the people around me, I am also someone that believes that laughter can be a very useful tool in making an uncomfortable situation more manageable, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I haven’t crossed the line myself on more than one occasion. I also believe that as a society, we have become entirely too comfortable with joking about violent acts, so although I would never be comfortable with any quip that included any reference to a violent act, each person has their own barometer for what is acceptable. Sensitivity and discretion is probably the right direction, even when it comes to comedy.

    • I agree with you. Laughter is a wonderful thing and can do amazing things to make a hard situation better. Actually in my city they have been using Laughter Therapy to treat trauma. I’m not sure how it works but I understand it is very effective. But I believe we have to be really careful with just what it is that we choose to laugh at, especially as you say, with issues of violence and harm. It’s hard to get the right balance but I’m sure that if we can get it right then we will contribute to the lessening of stigma.

  8. I have Borderline Personality Disorder and an highly sensitive. I was bullied all through school. I am fighting to get rid of stigma. I want to make mental illness something to not be ashamed of.

  9. Personally, I don’t care for the concept of “you can joke about X only if you have it.I think it is stupid. That being said, I know that jokes can quickly escalate and get very hurtful. So it is a sad thing that we humans have such difficulty finding that proverbial middle of the road.

    As for me, I much prefer to laugh [at myself] than to be angry. I don’t care for anger or for being offended.

    But it is a reality that some people are too quick to take offense and that some other people are too quick to be assholes.

  10. I think that most people just think that jokes are harmless because they are jokes. I sometimes joke about OCD but I also have it, so did my mom and so does my son. Luckily for us it is not extreme but still inconvenient sometimes. I think my moms was worse than mine…but then I would venture to say that we are not always aware of how bad it is ourselves. sighs.. but yes…I not too long ago rented a comedy video where a well known comedian was joking about rape. Learned people might know that what he was recounting with a straight face was preposterous and demonstrated the obviously flawed ridiculouslness in that mindset…it’s not those people I am worried about…it’s the people that do think it’s okay and have similar justifications in their mind that worry me. They will see that joke stream as validation and continue, or maybe the joke will be the catalyst they need to get started in the first place. It’s always a fine line and I think it is way too often crossed because people do not know where the line is. People have long made fun of the handicapped… we can only hope they’re not aware of what people say about them.because it certainly is hurtful and definitely perpetuates the stereotypes. In short, LOL, I think you have to have been there to joke about it. Just my opinion. 🙂

    • Bravo, Dani. I (unfortunately) haven’t much left in me to say about this (or anything), but I hope in 50 years jokes about mental illness will be looked upon the same way black face and jokes about race that were acceptable in the majority of the last century are looked upon now.

    • I think that often what we see as harmless actually does the most damage sometimes, simply because we don’t stop and think what effect it has on others. I know it’s a really difficult one. It’s good to have a laugh and we need it but not at the expense of other people and groups. I’m also quite sure that handicapped people know what the jokes about them are, just as those of us with mental illness know what the jokes are about us. I just hope that, like Ruby said, one day society will frown on jokes about mental illness like we frown on jokes of race, sexuality and the like.

  11. You know what, Cate, you have made me do some really serious thinking and reevaluation of my own belief system here. I don’t think these jokes are ever okay, regardless of intention, and after the dust has settled for me I intend to see all Canvas social media (fb, Pinterest) are vetted to reflect this. I have no intention of trying to tell people what they can and cannot express, that is even more counter to my core beliefs.

    Canvas is a collective, and I want all the authors to be free to express themselves and all the readers to be free to (respectfully) respond. This is how we learn and grow as a community. One thing I have learned from this exchange is jokes like this make me think of the way “polite” society in America used to “joke” about Jews.

    I read or heard it recently, probably in an old film, but the quote went something like “I’ve noticed when people are serious about something, they are usually joking, and when they joke, they’re usually dead serious.” I don’t know if I believe this to be always the case, but it’s a damned scary thought.

    I know there have been times and will be times I need to make a joke to myself or someone close to me about my bipolar or anxiety disorders, but I know these are also moments when if I don’t make a joke, the alternative is breaking down sobbing, and I think that’s rightly something else altogether.

    I think the vast majority of people get information on mental illness not only from the media, but from those of us dealing with it ourselves. When we joke about it, when we self-stigmatize, hide it and treat it with shame, they take the cue that it is something to joke about, stigmatize, hide and shame.

    Bottom line is we set the example, and I never again want to set any kind that gives anyone the right to be ignorant and ugly about mental illness.

    • I love it when people do serious thinking as a result of my posts, regardless of the outcome they come up with. But I very much like your outcome. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you talk of self stigma. I hadn’t thought of it in those terms but think it is exactly what we are doing when we tell or share jokes like these. On the surface it maybe funny to laugh at ourselves but in all seriousness what we are doing is putting ourselves down. In the world of having a mental illness it is all to easy to do this, and if by changing what we share, then we are starting to change out world. That has to be a great thing.

  12. At the end of the school day I drive home my two daughters and one of their friends. This friend of theirs is a sweet girl, but every so often she derides one of her classmates by saying their “mentally ill”. Every time I hear it from her I try to gently and breezily remind her that mental illness isn’t what she means and that people she knows suffer from one form or another of it. Like me. Like my daughter. That we’re regular people who have an illness, not crazy people deserving of jokes.

    Anyway, what a wonderful post, Cate, and one that has me thinking about what’s appropriate, what’s laughable, and all the rest – in context of mental illness and anything else. I’m sure I could do more to bring real and accurate information to those around me, and minimize the misinformation that’s probably out there. Thanks for writing as always!

    • Hi Sid, Your account of your daughter’s friend makes me so sad. It is bad enough when adults do it but when it is a child? Makes me wonder where she learnt that way of looking at the world. How sad at such a young age. I hope your reminders of another way to look at it eventually make a difference. As you say we are “regular people who have an illness”.

  13. To complicate things (lol), I take great issue with the “FYI” statement. I think there is funny and then there is clearly not helping and that statement would fall under not helping. But then of course one could argue that my cutter jokes aren’t helping either. People with lived experience should exploit their experience using jokes and people without lived experience need a better understanding on their words.

    • I think it is a very fine line between what is ok and what is not. And I guess for all of us that line is at a different point making the whole issue rather contentious. But I don’t think you’re making it complicated. 😉

  14. I don’t think “… all people with mental illness are dangerous …” – actually, though many people believe that, the opposite (statistically) may actually be true. It would be a dangerous misconception e.g. that wars are started by cranks. They often follow a “rational” scheming that only, who’dathoughtit … backfire. I was actually once passing by a mental home and a friend of mine had asked me to deliver a Christmas present to her nephew who worked there over Christmas as an intern on his way to medical school after high school (or the European equivalent). So I went in and a girl walked down the stairs. She had other ailments as well, like she was probably spastic. She was with her relatives (to the left, the right and behind). Now obviously, if someone would know where the intern was it would be another “inmate”, wouldn’t it? So I held out my hand which she grabbed and shook (as one customarily does in Europe). The relatives froze. Then i asked my question. And as she began to answer, the relatives cut in and did the answering for her. Not that thy knew, and three people speaking at once didn’t help either. Now these were relatives. No wonder people even more remote behave strange towards the handicapped.

    • I totally agree with you that all people with mental illness are not dangerous. What I was suggesting that the quoted meme might lead people to think that they are, and for that reason we need to be very careful about the jokes we tell. Personally I think that jokes about mental illness, and for that matter other disabilities are something that should be avoided because people get the wrong message.

Throw Some Paint Onto The Canvas!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s