Psychiatric nurse turned stand up poet Rob Gee on why it’s important to laugh at ourselves...
Pranks in mental health are very common: the Greek student nurse who I sent to pharmacy for some fallopian tubes has yet to forgive me. If a patient is involved in the prank, it has the bonus of making it therapeutic.
The reason I loved working in acute psychiatry, and did so for eleven years, was the cross section of humanity that were spat through our doors: all walks of life, all professions, races, social classes, people with every psychiatric diagnosis you could think of. The only thing they had in common was being in hospital; and often it was laughter that brought them together.
Laughter has a vital role on any psychiatric unit. It diffuses tension, finds common ground between people and helps to put seemingly insurmountable problems into context. If you do it for the right reasons, it will always have a therapeutic value, because it transcends nurse/patient boundaries and, for all too brief a time, allows you to relate to each other as equal human beings.
Many years ago I was obliged to chase a naked person through a maternity unit. He ran right through a ward full of newborns and expectant parents, and out into the adjoining field, singing his heart out. The only reason I caught up with him was that he stopped to shake the hand of a passer by. Days later he was already recovering. I was on a night shift and I think we were both a bit sleep deprived. Between us we created a seemingly inexhaustible repertoire of Sound of Music-based nudity jokes. This was an important milestone in his recovery, albeit one you’d struggle to articulate in a care plan.
There’s two pitfalls when writing comedy about mental health: one is that you try so hard to educate people and ‘pass on a message’ that you get bogged down in your own worthiness. The other is that you just laugh at mad people, because hey, mad people are funny; and it all becomes a bit mean.
The fact is that any of us can have a psychiatric episode at any time in our lives, and, as human beings, we all have our own unique and beautiful ways of being ridiculous, whether we’re mentally ill or not. When life does take us too seriously, it’s more important than ever to find joy in everyday absurdity. And sometimes the psychiatric system itself is the easiest target of all.