They say that a person with depression lives two lives at the same time: “There’s the life that everyone sees and then there’s the life that only I see”, explains Kevin Breel in a TED talk. Many of us find it hard to understand that a happy and funny person, as we tend to think of a comedian, could be capable of losing the will to live. For this reason, in this article, we’re going to explore the question of why some comedians get depressed.
There’s a biological and organic origin to depression, so it must be treated like any other injury to the body. “Depression isn’t being sad in your life when something goes wrong. Depression is being sad when everything in your life is going right,” reflects Kevin Breel.
Sad clown syndrome
This duality that the Canadian comedian talks about appears inside everyone suffering from depression. However, in the case of a comedian, it can become really torturous.
According to Álvaro Montoya, a psychiatrist at the Imbanaco Medical Center (Colombia), it’s because they’re “more sensitive and, therefore, able to put themselves in the place of others more easily”. Basically, the idea is that comedians are more permeable to suffering.
The power and status of a successful person can be an obstacle to complying with any effective treatment. In addition, there’s the added difficulty of seeking psychological help, since many people associate depression with weakness and won’t ask for help.
The phenomenon that could explain why some comedians get depressed is known as the sad clown paradox. It’s a term that means the masking or ignorance of depressive symptoms through humor or sympathy.
In fact, the use of humor as an escape route has long-term consequences, even though comedians experience an increase in adrenaline with the laughter of their audience.
Robin Williams: The consequences of denial
When we talk about humor and depression, many of us remember Robin Williams, the Oscar-winning comedian and actor who took his own life in 2014. That was the last step in a stage of depression that intensified after he relapsed into alcoholism and drug addiction.
This star of great movies, such as Good Will Hunting and Awakenings, was just one of many comedians who may have suffered from the sad clown paradox. “Contrary to what most believe, (depression) is not necessarily linked to a loss, be it that of a loved one or financial bankruptcy”, explains Montoya. In the case of Robin Williams, we can identify a chronicity in his suffering, which was intensified by ‘self-destructive behaviors’.
In his case, both isolation and a lack of understanding of his surroundings precipitated the tragic ending we’re all familiar with. As a matter of fact, it’s normal that when a successful person suffers from depression, those around them don’t understand. Indeed, it’s precisely this attitude of lack of empathy and understanding that’s usually one of the main reasons why some comedians get depressed.
Bo Burnham: Inside
Another known case in recent years was that of Bo Burnham, an American musician and comedian. He managed to materialize the anxiety and depression typical of the pandemic in his special show, Bo Burnham: Inside, produced by Netflix.
In this show, Burnham navigated through the various stages of lockdown with seemingly unconnected comedic songs. Interspersed with these are some not-too-fluid transitions in which the viewer witnesses the comedian’s deteriorating mental health. In fact, he even appears to flirt with the idea of suicide.
However, if we delve deeper into the narrative of this show, we discover a common thread running through it. It begins with songs like “Content” and “Comedy”, which demonstrate Burnham’s depressive situation. Later, songs like “How the World Works” and “Welcome to the Internet” point to the true villains of this story: the system and the Internet, the network on which we’re all becoming increasingly dependent.
After other songs and monologues, the show ends in a rather sweet yet ironic finale. Bo Burnham leaves satire and cynicism behind to present a great truth to the viewer: we’re all a little broken inside and the sooner we admit it, the better.
Kevin Breel’s activism
Kevin Breel is one of the comedians who’s found a way of redirecting his depression. The young Canadian has not only written a book talking about his experience, but he also travels the world giving talks, making visible what many suffer in silence. Breel blames this social problem on ignorance.
“That ignorance has created a world that doesn’t understand depression, that doesn’t understand mental health,” he says in a TED talk. Breel believes the world feels unprepared to address the problem, as “we just push it aside and put it in a corner and pretend it’s not there, and hope it’ll fix itself”.
It’s clear that, in order to solve a problem, we must first recognize that it exists. “We haven’t done it yet. So we can’t really expect to find an answer when we’re still afraid of the question”, reflects the Canadian. “Depression is okay. If you’re going through it, know that you’re okay. Know that you’re sick, you’re not weak, and it’s an issue not an identity”, he continues.
Kevin Breel speaks from his heart and his personal experience. In fact, since he was a teenager, he’s been going through and continues to go through depression. “It’s dragged me through the dark but only to remind me that there’s light” he concludes.
Why do some comedians get depressed?
It’s not that comedians are more prone to depression. It’s rather that, given their sensitivity and personality traits, they tend to suffer more from these types of problems. Moreover, in the case of successful comedians, their positions don’t motivate or facilitate calls for help. “How are they going to tell their problems to a strange man, if he’s not going to solve them?” explains Gerardo Campo Cabal, Head of the Department of Psychiatry at the Universidad del Valle, in Colombia.
Finally, the sufferer of depression certainly doesn’t need to hear comments such as “Pull yourself together” or “You need to get out more”. Depression is a highly disabling disease that causes the sufferer to isolate themselves at home, feeling drained of energy. In the words of Campo Cabal, depression “must be treated”.
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