Rockpool Publishing

Laugh? I nearly cried

[WHO] Steve Bedwell - media figure and mental-health advocate.
[WHAT] Using comedy to help the mentally unwell and to reduce stigma.
[HOW] An expanding international program called Stand Up for Mental Health.

There is a pivotal line in Steve Bedwell's stand-up comedy routine: "I was diagnosed with bipolar in 2007, which was a huge relief because up until that time I thought I was just a particularly moody arsehole."

Bedwell has had a high-profile media career, including co-hosting Triple M's top-rating Melbourne breakfast show in the 1990s. He is here in the Zone because of his involvement in an edgy program that is buttressing mentally unwell people and helping reduce the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.
The program is called Stand Up for Mental Health. It has been facilitated in Australia by WISE Employment, an organisation helping a diverse range of people find meaningful work.
Bedwell was brought in to mentor and help train a group of people who recently presented their stand-up routines in one of Melbourne's most prominent venues, Deakin Edge at Federation Square.

"These nine people came into the room and there were varying illnesses from schizophrenia to post traumatic stress to depression to you name it," he recalls. "The full gamut was covered there in the room.

"It was amazing. And what they came with was a group of experiences . . . either in the mental-health system, or personally. And they brought these experiences to the table and from there, comedy was born . . .

"Mental health and comedy are a perfect fit," he says. "Because there is no better way of destigmatising anything than with comedy."

The full transcript of our discussion and a short video by Bedwell are at He will be online for an hour from midday today to answer questions and comments.

Stand Up for Mental Health began several years ago in Canada and spread to the US before coming here. It was created by stand-up comedian David Granirer, who is depressive and also works as a counsellor.

Over 12 weeks, Granirer helped train the nine Australians via video link. Bedwell was in the room with them and helped them develop their routines.

Stand up comedy is a demanding and high-pressure form of entertainment. But the performances, a video of which will soon be on WISE's website (see link below) are funny, insightful – and often poignant. Granirer was the master of ceremonies, and Bedwell's was the closing act.

Stephen Parslow, for instance, is 41 and lives with his mother. He uses her, as a foil throughout his act, with profound affection.

"I'm not only on stage here tonight to relieve the stigma of mental illness, because it is a very serious problem," he tells the audience, "but Mum also said 'if you don't get off your arse and do something soon, I am changing the locks'."

After the death of Parslow's father by suicide, he developed depression, had suicidal thoughts and became addicted to drugs and gambling.

Another performer, Craig Tolley, has schizophrenia and holds the view that if he takes his medication he is just as normal as the next person.

"I'm pretty stable at the moment," he says during his act. "I still hear voices, but they raise their hands before they speak."

Bedwell describes the effect the experience has had on the performers. "I have seen nine people go from quite withdrawn – and in a lot of cases, shells of people. And I have seen them grow . . .

"I have seen these people change in their whole demeanour, from the way they come into the classroom to the way they present physically. They lift themselves. They are higher beings. It is remarkable what has come over them. And it is through the power of comedy."

There are plans to continue the Stand Up for Mental Health Program in Australia, and should you be interested, you can contact WISE. Given how widespread mental ill-health is, the program has significant potential to help people become well. And by raising awareness, it can combat stigma.

Almost half of Australia's population will experience a mental-health disorder at some time in life. At least a third of the population will have experienced it before they are 25.

Each year, as many as one in five adults in Australia will have a mental disorder. There are today as many Australians with depression as there are with a common cold.

Stand Up for Mental Health has helped Bedwell as well as the fledgling performers. "I have been totally uplifted by the experience of helping these people . . . " he says. "WISE has nurtured me to a certain extent as well. I feel very much valued, very much appreciated and you really can't underestimate the importance of that."

Bedwell's illness has been difficult for him and for his colleagues, family and friends. The nadir came two years ago, when he tried to end his own life.

Bipolar disorder – also referred to as bipolar affective disorder, manic-depressive disorder, or manic depression – involves swings in mood from soaring, creative exuberance to crushing lows.

His advice to anyone who suspects they are becoming unwell is to seek professional help immediately. "You might not find the right doctor the first time. It might take two or three times. But keep getting referrals and eventually you will find somebody who you relate to, and having that relationship with a psychiatrist or a psychologist is just as important as anything else in terms of medication or other treatments."

And Bedwell urges anyone who feels that someone they care about has mental health problems to gently start a conversation with them, discussing any worrying behaviour. He wishes someone had done this for him; his behaviour cost him many friendships, which he understands and accepts.

"I have attempted redemption and attempted contacting people to try to make amends, not trying to get a job but just trying to make amends and be a good human, and it doesn't work out so well . . . " he says.

"For some people, the damage that was done was too great and it can't be recovered from."

The sadness of losing such relationships lingers, but it has been mitigated by the relief of knowing that the behaviour was the result of bipolar, not bastardry.

Bedwell has found much succour from religion. Eleven years ago, the woman who was to become his wife, Elana, introduced him to Judaism. It intrigued him and he spent two intensive years converting to Orthodox Judaism, the most traditional form of the religion.

Faith became crucial to him. "Faith can sometimes be as healing as a talk to a psychiatrist. Sometimes you can draw from faith what you can't draw from talking to people . . .

"Faith to me is a fundamental belief. I have faith in my wife and I have faith in my religion. Faith is a feeling of not being alone. It's that feeling of having a touchstone that you can always fall back on if you need an answer. It will always be there for you."

Other things have been there for him; he has had support from family, friends and the private health system. He is particularly grateful to Elana, without whom, he says, he would not be alive.

"I am very lucky in that regard. Whereas the people we have been working with don't have those supports. They have been through the rigours of the public system. They have been through all sorts of hell and back personally and professionally."

Which is why Bedwell is so enthusiastic about the support Stand Up for Mental Health provides. He says seeking help the first time was both the hardest and easiest thing he has ever done.

"Once I sat down and spoke to somebody, the hardest thing I had to do turned into the easiest thing I ever did, because it gave me tremendous relief."

Bedwell's wife gave birth to their second child about four months ago. "I am in the best place I have been in a long time," he says.

He lists three things that have been fundamental in managing his condition: finding the right doctor, taking the appropriate combination of medication and participating in Stand Up for Mental Health. He also benefited from ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy), which he talks about in his stand-up routine.

"Like most people, my first reaction to the prospect of ECT was 'no way, you would have to be insane to have that'," he says. "And then it was explained to me that that was precisely why I was having it. So I got strapped and zapped, and it wasn't too bad – it helped with my depression and now I can see in the dark."

The full list of performers, who can be booked for events, is on the WISE website.


Read more:

Michael Short, The Age – 25 November, 2013