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FEATURE: Turning Tragedy into Tee-Hees: Rebecca Sayce’s Top Comedies for Mental Health Awareness Month

It’s true what they say – laughter is the best medicine.

Not only physically – as it turns out, laughter helps to strengthen your immune system and balance pain – but it helps to boost your mood and bring people together in a shared display of joy.

In our house, laughter reigns supreme.

My husband copes with some of the most serious events in his life by cracking a joke and smiling through the pain. It’s something I never used to understand, but over the past six years of our relationship it is a complex coping mechanism that I have come to see the benefits of.

Through my own struggles with depression, grief, and a near nervous breakdown that led to me seeking professional help and leading a life of sobriety, I often found myself turning to my favourite comedy shows as a way to escape the numbing pain I was experiencing.

From the sassy shade thrown by the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK to sharing tears with Ricky Gervais in After Life and enjoying the weird and wonderful world of The Mighty Boosh, laughter helped me smile again.

And although mental health may not seem like a laughing matter, a lovely bit of mirth can help take the edge off.

Some comedy can help you escape your troubles and take your mind off them entirely, while others reflect a variety of mental health issues to the world and help to end the stigma that surrounds them.

As Brits, we have a particular knack when it comes to taboo comedy. Our stiff upper lip and dry sense of humour contrasts so, so starkly with a variety of deeply serious topics so perfectly it almost seems like we were made to turn tragedy into tee-hees.

And as such, we have a plethora of ground-breaking comedy series that help to show that it is okay to not be okay.

Here, in no particular order, are my top picks of British comedy programmes to enjoy this Mental Health Awareness Month.

Flowers

The first TV show that springs to mind when I think of mental health is Flowers.

Created by Will Sharp and starring comedy heavyweights Julian Barratt and Olivia Coleman, this bleak black comedy begins with depressed children’s writer Maurice attempting to hang himself in his garden, before muttering a harsh ‘fuck’s sake’ after the tree branch snaps.

It is immediately jarring and sets the tone of the show within seconds. Flowers tackles everything from depression through to suicide and the experience of bipolar disorder through Maurice’s daughter Amy, played expertly by Sophie Di Martino.

After Life

Credit: NYT

Ricky Gervais’ After Life quickly made waves following the release of its first season in 2019, and was quickly picked up for a second, and now a third in the making.

The popular programme follows the day to day life of regional newspaper journalist Tony whose life is turned upside down when his beloved wife dies of breast cancer. He believes his superpower is getting through each day by doing and saying whatever he wants, but this is scuppered as those around him try to make him a better person.

Each episode is a beautiful exploration of grief, life and love after death as we watch Tony struggle to deal with some of the most mundane aspects of life that he once treasured with his wife.

Get the tissues ready – this is one I’m struggling to even write about without getting dewy eyed.

Fleabag

It’s weird, it’s wonderful, and it begins with a scene that sees protagonist Fleabag, played by creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, masturbating over a video of Barack Obama giving a speech about democracy.

Though our titular character’s humour masks a great deal of pain as she struggles to cope with the death of her mother and best friend.

Across two series we see Fleabag try to navigate the world dealing with these losses, while also rejecting anyone who tries to help her, keeping her bravado up through it all.

Adapted from the popular stage show of the same name, Fleabag bagged itself 11 Emmy Award nominations and won six, while Waller-Bridge earned a British Academy Television Award for Best Female Comedy Performance.

It isn’t hard to see why – this deeply dark and taboo comedy is packed full of raw and poignant moments that takes you on a journey through the pain of loss and the feelings of denial and avoidance that can become overwhelming. Plus it features Andrew Scott as a sexy priest which is award winning in itself.

In My Skin

Being 16 is difficult. Between puberty and your GCSEs there isn’t much fun in what is often dubbed the ‘best years of your life’.

In My Skin follows teenager Bethan and her double life that threatens to rip her in twain.

To her school friends and teachers she is just your average, run of the mill girl, but at home she is struggling to cope with her alcoholic father and her mother suffering from bipolar disorder.

The pain of keeping these two distinct aspects of her life separate is palpable, and the scenes within her home are particularly raw and see her mother deal with being sectioned by the crisis team at a psychiatric hospital while her father is indifferent.

Told through the eyes of Bethan, portrayed by Gabrielle Creevy, we see her shame in coming from a working class Welsh background and a family that struggles with mental health and her deep desire to earn the respect of her peers, especially her teacher Ms Morgan.

It’s deeply moving and filled with plenty of laughter and tears in every scene. I just wanted to grab Bethan and tell her that everything would be okay and these years will be in the past soon. I best get my tissues back out…

Nurse

From patients to the people helping those patients through their troubles, Nurse follows a community mental health nurse, played by Esther Cole, as she visits her patients.

The four-part series, based on the Radio Four comedy drama of the same name, recounts their humorous and often sad daily interactions with their nurse, whose job is to offer comfort and support as well as dispense medication and treatment plans.

While tackling different facets of mental health in patients – such a depression and PTSD – it also shines a light on the strains this has on the people caring for them and the issues they face in turn.

Pure

Picture shows: Marnie (CHARLY CLIVE). Credit: Sophia Spring

Striking and subversive in its content, Channel 4 comedy drama Pure is a fictionalised adaptation of creator Rose Cartwright’s memoirs and her experience with obsessive compulsive disorder.

The series follows Marnie – portrayed by Charly Clive – a woman plagued with disturbing

sexual thoughts that she can’t distinguish the route or meaning of. She jumps on a coach with the purpose of beginning a new life in London, culminating in a heart-warming scene in which she reads about obsessive compulsive disorder in a book and immediately relates to the thoughts and feelings she sees in front of her.

The show has been applauded for its frank portrayal of mental health and sexuality that grasps some incredibly taboo thoughts and feelings and strips the stigma away from them – quite literally in some aspects.

Catastrophe

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan. Credit: Amazon

When I became a first time mom last December, I binge watched Catastrophe. In retrospect, with all the chaos within, it probably wasn’t the most gentle thing to watch before becoming a parent for the first time, but it sure is the most honest.

The series follows Sharon and Rob, played by show creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney. The pair meet in a bar and begin a short fling that becomes complicated when Sharon finds out she is pregnant. The pair make a go of their relationship and eventually marry to raise their son, and eventually their daughter.

It also features some equally honest portrayals of mental health, especially addiction through lead character Rob and his struggles with addiction.

As he struggled to balance his career and parental responsibilities, Rob slowly slips into a cycle of drinking to cope with his daily pressures, eventually leading to him being involved in a car crash while under the influence.

His struggle and the effect it has on him and his family is simply heartbreaking to watch, though it really highlights the destruction addiction can wreak within people’s lives as well as the help available to those suffering.

This Way Up

Putting your life back together after a nervous breakdown is hard. Really, really, really hard.

And it’s something that British comedian Aisling Bea explores in the hauntingly hilarious This Way Up.

Starring Bea as lead character Áine and Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan as her protective older sister Shona, the show covered everything from loneliness, loss, codependency and the impending doom of Brexit in a deeply sensitive yet witty manner.

It’s irreverent and unflinching in portraying every aspect of Áine’s mental state – even the parts the world may want to shy away from.

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