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No Laughing Matter? The Debate About Humor and Mental Illness

Do comedy and mental illness ever mix?drama masks

That’s the question posed by a new television series, The United States of Tara, as well as a one-woman stage show—and memoir—by actor and writer, Carrie Fisher.

Newsweek recently explored the question in an excellent article about television, mental illness, and the stigma of mental illness.
The answer may depend on who makes the joke: a person who actually lives with mental illness or someone else. 

Do people laugh with us or at us?

Carrie Fisher’s memoir, Wishful Drinking, can be hilarious and sobering to read. Famous for playing the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars (in a galaxy far away and long ago), Fisher has struggled with bipolar disorder for three decades.  She is an authentic voice who, in many respects, has earned the right to joke about her illness.

"Having waited my entire life to get an award for something…I now get awards all the time for being mentally ill," she writes. "I’m apparently very good at it…It’s better than being bad at being insane, right? How tragic it would be to be runner-up for Bipolar Woman of the Year."

For the record, NAMI has honored Fisher with one of its highest awards for her contributions in fighting stigma.

In contrast, there are books, television episodes, and movies written from humorous perspectives by people who have no direct experience with mental illness.

Currently airing on the Showtime cable channel is one of those. It has sparked discussion about both the limits of humor and the nature of disassociative identity disorder (DID).

Based on comments submitted to NAMI’s StigmaBusters program, some NAMI members hate the show. Others love it.

In the adult comedy-drama, "Tara" struggles with DID (once called "multiple personalities"). Her family is loving and supportive, but don't know what identity, age, mood, or gender she will have on a given day. United States of Tara

Some praise the show for helping to reduce stigma and opening public dialogue about DID.  Others believe it reinforces stigma and is insensitive and inappropriate, using a serious condition, often rooted in child abuse, as a vehicle for comedy. At the same time, it is rare that a person with a mental illness is portrayed positively as a lead character.

Declared one reviewer, "What makes Tara unusual is that DID isn't treated as frightening and isolating, as a medical conundrum, or as the shortest route to laughs. Tara's alternate identities are accepted by her family and by the community, and, in a way, she's just the town eccentric."

However, a person who lives with DID counters: "Although the show is factually based, the woman's presentation is clearly sensationalist and presents those with DID in an extremely poor light… I can testify to the dramatic negative impact this show is causing those with DID."

Make your own judgment:  View the first episode on-line, and if you subscribe to Showtime, one or two other episodes.

The discussion is similar to that sparked when the television series Monk first appeared several years ago, about a detective living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  The federal government has since honored Monk with a Voice Award, but some episodes still get complaints (In 2009, the series begins its final season).

Don’t touch that dial.

Stay tuned for more debate about humor, mental illness, and stigma in years ahead.

It won’t be resolved anytime soon.

But progress can be made.