Did you hear about the club for mentally ill comedians?

Harriet Dyer

From a confused attempt at self-harm to setting up a comedy club for comics with mental health difficulties. Harriet Dyer has come a long way in the last year.

Comedian Harriet Dyer says friends have been questioning her state of mind her whole life. But up until quite recently, the 31-year-old thought of herself as just being eccentric.

She says people have tried to section her several times throughout her life and now accepts that her behaviour, on occasion, was a bit more than just unusual.

Once when she didn't feel like going in to work, she asked her flatmate to try to break her arm with a mallet. When that didn't work, Dyer got her to jump on it. Neither attempt was successful but she did get very bruised.

Speaking about this period in her life, she says: "I thought it was normal to regularly feel like you're plummeting down a dark vortex of despair. Apparently this is not the case."

It was while writing a show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year about how she was eccentric but not "mental" she began to think that perhaps people had been right all along. Shortly after this she sought help and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression.

Dyer took a module in comedy as part of her drama degree but it wasn't until a couple of years after graduating that she realised stand-up was her calling.

Her style is quirky and full of big gestures. She often lapses into warbly voices - far removed from her native Cornish accent.

A number of audience members stayed behind after Dyer's Fringe show to tell her that the material about mental health had struck a chord. It was only then that she began to explore the subject further.

Dyer wrote a few well-received articles about mental health for the comedy website Chortle, and an idea to start a mental health comedy club started to spark.

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Harriet Dyer talks about her comedy club and mental health matters with fellow comics Felicity Ward and Stuart Goldsmith on the latest podcast from Ouch.

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The first of Dyer's Barking Tales nights was held at Manchester's Joshua Brooks club in April. The objective is to give comedians who have mental health difficulties a safe and supportive environment to talk about their mental health issues and try out their routines.

On opening night in April, there were about 30 people watching - at the second night in May the audience had doubled.

Australian comic Felicity Ward appeared on the first night. She often performs material about her own difficulties with anxiety, depression, irritable bowel syndrome and how they all intersect. Harriet talked about her hallucinations, and an audience member said that her own experience of constantly seeing ravens had prompted her to have pictures of them tattooed on her body.

An obstacle the new club has run up against is that not many comedians are comfortable with "outing" themselves as having mental health problems. Harriet says she knows of one comedian who just comes along to watch at the moment, but says she would love to get him up on stage.

Dyer says it can also be difficult for audience members with mental health difficulties. She knows of an agoraphobic who drove to the first night's show, but couldn't muster up the ability to get out of the car. (She thinks he made it to the second one though).

So how do you make mental health funny? Dyer says the key is definitely not to preach - a "woe is me" attitude won't work either. But she believes that once you laugh at something, it takes away its power.

  • The next Barking Tales will be on Wednesday 4 August at Joshua Brooks in central Manchester. All profits go to Manchester Mind charity.
  • You can hear Harriet Dyer and Felicity Ward discuss their comedy and their mental health difficulties, by downloading the latest Ouch podcast.

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