I can tell you straight off the bat that there is no right or wrong answer. It depends on a few things. Take me for example, I am happy to describe myself when I was unwell as crazy, it’s accurately descriptive. 2001 – 2010 I had cannabis induced psychosis with delusions of a grandiose nature, so crazy I was. Since about 2005 I would joke about it all, even when it was a serious situation and I was unhappy. I have my brothers to thank for initiating the humour aspect, it was them who continued to joke with me about things when I was unwell. Brothers have that sibling bond that involves joking around, and when they did, it showed that even though I had a mental illness, they still saw me as a person with a sense of humour. They would use humour for levity to try and lighten some tough situations such as having anxiety attacks, something I picked up with gratitude in about 2003.
They were really not very nice, but I started to learn how to deal with them and eventually get rid of them in about 2010, and since then I saw a real improvement in everything. Humour is one of the things that got me through it! Picture driving to London on an unassuming afternoon feeling anxious, and your brother makes a funny joke about something anxiety related, and you laugh. Unless it’s a very serious panic attack, you laugh, and the conversation continues, just slightly lightened. It’s not like a single joke can cure anxiety, but it helps. It might set new ground for a slightly more enjoyable car journey. I have found many times that joking about things with family can really grease the wheels of a more valuable and fun conversation. But you already know this!
In present day I joke too. I’m fine now thank God, and I often find myself talking about mental illness. I recently worked nine hours a week voluntarily on the same local mental health ward where I was a patient five times, in and out, 2001 – 2005. Though I was ready to crack jokes about Brexit, Donald Trump’s hair or football on the ward, I never tried to instigate humour about other people’s mental health. But patients did, which was their prerogative. There are different severities of mental health problems and those that aren’t in a bit of despair are often talkative and bright. It’s a natural response to the situation for a lot of people. A bit like when Grandpa takes out his teeth and pretends like they are still chattering in his hand to amuse the grandkids. He would much rather have his own real teeth but like some people he doesn’t mind making a few laughs here and there.
If you are wondering whether to joke with a friend that has recently discovered they have some sort of mental health problem, be it light depression or the most serious schizophrenia, it might do good to just straight out ask them. If someone asked me, I’d say without hesitation that I’d be ok with it, even though I had the most serious psychosis and anxiety back in the day. But it is an area that requires respect and understanding and not everyone would want to hear people making light about their troubles. Treat it like a physical illness. You wouldn’t take the mickey out of a man who has an artificial leg after serving in the army, would you? If that person had encouraged you that they joke about it and don’t mind then maybe…but in that case I’d still be respectful. But that is an extreme example. Most problems are not so severe, like a broken finger – I don’t think you would cause any hurt by calling a friend Mr. Nine Fingers.
But there is a flip side to all of this. I’m fine with humour about my mental health stuff and pretty much always have been. So is my mum, and she used to be a psychiatric nurse…my dad however isn’t. He may even be the person to listen to on this sometimes sensitive issue because my dad is a semi-retired psychiatric nurse. He started psychiatric nursing in his early twenties and he’s 69 (or something like that) now. He is smart too, and I have never seen him joke about mental illness. Not even once. If I joke about it when I’m around him he gets a disapproving look on his face. I don’t think it’s because he has seen traumatic things at work, but it might be. It might be because he thinks it’s unhelpful in the long run for some reason, I really must ask him one day.
I have written a book about my mental health journey that I will soon be trying to get published. I include humour from page one, but then the first chapter is about when I went to The Ritz Hotel in London in 2001 to meet my imaginary friend, wearing rough clothes and roller blades and it was very funny.
So I joke about my stuff. But I also try to offer some guidance and advice and I would suggest that it is probably okay to joke about most mental illnesses, but it is imperative that you check with the person who has the mental illness first. I’m not alone either, I’m pretty sure that Ruby Wax jokes about her mental health stuff too, and I believe I have also seen Britney Spears and Stephen Fry being silly about it all on their social media accounts.
We have come so far in recent years when it comes to the subject of mental health and people are opening up and getting better. If you see an opportunity to help this situation through humour, it might be worth considering, but each to his or her own. Most of it is common sense.