02 Aug Fighting Addiction With Comedy
A group in the U.K. is taking a revolutionary approach to tackling addiction, encouraging recovering drug and alcohol users to take up the microphone and turn their experiences into something positive. Laughing Matters is a social enterprise dedicated to helping addicts improve their confidence, and it’s received some high-profile support from British comedians such as Russell Brand, Ricky Gervais, and now doctor-turned-comedian Harry Hill looks to be lending his hand to the project. You might think it’s a gimmick, but the program has had a definite positive effect on the lives on many users, and there are several benefits to the approach.
The name of the organization is pretty perfect; re-appropriating a common phrase and instilling it with a much deeper meaning. The program started as a university project in 2012, in which Kirstie Macdonald and Mark Christian were tasked with coming up with a new social enterprise. Obviously fans of comedy, they hypothesized that comedy had more value than simply being something to make us laugh. On the stage, behind the scenes, and in their day to day lives, comedians have to devise new material, work on the best ways to present it, and go through the process of getting up there and trying it out in person. It takes a tremendous amount of chutzpah to stand on stage, throw yourself into your routine, and risk taking abuse from anarchic hecklers, all for the goal of making people laugh.
This led them to create some comedy-focused workshops with the aim of helping specific social groups—like those struggling with addiction—using stand-up comedy techniques. The course mainly focuses on confidence and self-esteem by teaching stage presence and performance skills while focusing on the creative writing element of comedy. In May 2013, the pilot of the scheme took place, and the overwhelmingly positive response blew the program’s creators away. It’s led by a professional comedian, so the practical advice on material and performance was extremely valuable, as well as offering numerous potential benefits for people with mental health conditions.
The venture operates out of the Just the Tonic comedy club, which has venues across the UK. It’s free, which is increasingly valuable in the U.K. because of decreased funding for addiction rehabilitation centers, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Financial issues led them to put on a fund-raising concert previously, which featured many high-profile comedians willing to help out.
Russell Brand might not be the most well-known name on the list of comedians who performed, but his public struggle with addiction and his numerous efforts to improve the quality of the dialogue surrounding the war on drugs makes him particularly notable. His compassion for those struggling with addiction and his deep-seated desire to help them access suitable treatment undoubtedly drove his decision to perform at the benefit.
The new fundraiser features Harry Hill, Tony Law and Paul Foot, with more acts still to be confirmed, and takes place in September. If successful, it should allow the program to continue operating and give them the opportunity to do more good.
This is all very well, but you still might be thinking there isn’t much benefit to this approach. Of course, counseling, medication and other treatment should still be provided as needed, but as an additional form of therapy, there are a multitude of benefits. The most obvious is “filling the hole” left in addicts’ lives when they stop taking drugs. Comedy is something to take hold of, a new hobby to throw yourself into, and a clean way to have some fun.
The focus of the program is confidence and self-esteem, because these are the key areas the program has the potential to help with. The recovering drug and alcohol users are tasked with standing up in front of an audience and making people laugh, but are supported every step of the way by professionals in a judgment-free and positive environment. Not only do comedians have to exude a certain confidence on stage—following their jokes through with the required gusto, maintaining an on-stage persona and being able to deal with hecklers or any other problems that arise—confidence is really gained through the process of trying to accomplish something.
Much more than that, it also offers a unique opportunity for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics to turn their experiences into something positive. Just like Brand has incorporated stories about his addiction into his stand-up routine, the new program will allow users to come to terms with how they behaved in a positive way; to turn it into something that makes people both laugh and think. This may enlighten the audience too, but coming to terms with your own problem is an important part of getting better, and being able to laugh at your past self imbues you with confidence. Laughing really does matter.
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