Louise Nesbitt: ‘I find comedy and mental illness feed into each other pretty well’

The Northern Irish writer explains why mental health troubles can be a source of inspiration and how love can strike in the most unusual setting.

27 May 2020

I am, by medical standards, a moody bitch. I’ve had mental health issues varying from depression to anxiety and mania for most of my life. It’s a pretty weird ride, if I’m honest. My mind ping pongs from states of complete stagnation to something akin to a bee stuck in a Venus fly trap, and in between drafts of scripts I’m usually on the verge of giving myself a homemade fringe (again).

I find comedy and mental illness feed into each other pretty well. Comedy is the framework for how I see the world, I couldn’t survive the lows without finding something funny in them. Recently I wrote the ‘Hot Mess’ episode of the BBC Three shorts series The Break. It’s about a woman running away from her perfect date because of her fear of being rejected once he finds out about her mental illness. Oddly, right before this was released, I found myself falling in love with someone and simultaneously having a dissociative panic attack in an Edinburgh Wetherspoons at 7am. I couldn’t have written it if I’d tried, and I’d tried. It was a challenging experience – the writing, not the panic attacks – but I was lucky to have supportive people who stuck by my side through it all.

When I’m writing comedy about mental health the most important thing is who’s standing by my side. The team around you will prop you up, make sure you’re functioning and funny and they’ll allow you to tell the best story you can but not at the expense of yourself.

When it comes to portraying mental illness on screen, what happens behind the scenes is just as important. People aren’t always going to understand, sometimes they’ll say things that make you feel bad or uncomfortable, like there’s something wrong with how you see the world. And it’s even more uncomfortable to tell someone in a meeting, often a person who’s older or more experienced than you, that you know better than them. And when things are meant to funny it’s hard to put your foot down.

That self-doubt can hit you like a gut punch, but above all you owe it to your characters, your story and your audience to be clear about what you want. You never have to apologise for being honest about your lived experience. You’ve worked too hard to get here.

I’ve been asked before if it’s appropriate to joke about things that are so serious or if I’m worried about what people will think. The short answer is no. The long answer is naaaaaaah. Everyone’s life and experience with mental health is unique. People don’t have to agree with my jokes or characters but if I can’t joke about wanting to die, what am I supposed to do? Die? Two more series of Law and Order: SVU have just been commissioned, am I not gonna see those?

In fact, I think that the best way to address anything serious is with comedy. It lulls people into a sense of security. Laughter takes down your guard, it creates a safe space for people to learn and grow without fear of judgement or shame. Comedy can be a powerful tool, if I can wrap something personal or heartfelt inside a deeply personal titty joke then I’m doing my job.

In times of darkness comedy thrives. Right now as I go all Yellow Wallpaper inside my flat I’m trying to write something funny, and it’s hard as balls. A couple of solid jokes here and there (mostly about tits - seemingly nothing will take that away) but anxiety and grief are crawling inside my skin more than creativity is, and I feel the overwhelming urge to curl up in a ball and watch Real Housewives for 18 hours a day.

I wish I could say “Keee-p laughing!” (ala Bruce Forsyth) but that seems a bit like putting a plaster on a machete wound. But there’s something in listening to an imaginary Bruce Forsyth - trying to combat the darkness by saying “crisps” in a funny voice over and over again so you don’t feel like the world’s imploding seems to help. I think those moments are evidence of the power that comedy has over mental health, that it can show us there’s a way out, that somewhere in us there still exists the capacity for joy even if it’s hard to find right now.

Good or bad, mental health has a huge impact on how I approach my work, there’s not a way around it. But comedy is kind of an everyday therapy, without an NHS waiting list, that keeps me from buying a small bird and naming it “Breakdown Bird”.