A unique comedy workshop has been hailed as a lifesaver by mental health patients – turning cries of despair into tears of laughter.
The Comedy School is the only one of its kind helping sufferers overcome crippling anxiety and depression by teaching them how to deliver laughs.
After a seven-week improvisation and stand-up course, pupils are confident enough to perform live in front of a public audience.
And thanks to a £120,000 grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, the ground-breaking initiative in Brixton, South London, now has funding for the next three years.
Comic Andi Osho, a patron of the school, said: “So many participants think they can’t possibly be funny, so when they discover they can make people laugh, it is a huge confidence boost. The fact this programme can potentially change the way participants think about themselves – that’s life changing.”
Blod Jones, 64, is among those who say the sessions saved them – and that laughter is the best form of medicine. She has been sectioned four times since 1992 due to acute psychotic episodes.
The former community worker said: “At one point my delusions and hallucinations were so bad I thought the TV was talking to me. I had to get rid of it.
“I used to get in my car and follow the car in front wherever it went because ‘someone’ in my head was telling me to.”
But after learning how to deliver stand-up, Blod is happier than ever.
She added: “I’ve never laughed as much in my life. I had tissues to hand at every workshop because tears were always running down my face.”
Blod – who has reduced her medication since doing the course – explained how one exercise involved opening a pretend box and ditching personal items.
She added: “I started by throwing out a sofa, then a condom and a bra over my shoulder. It brought out my naughty sense of humour. It’s silly but it’s about having fun in a safe environment.”
The school has also been life-changing for freelance video editor Jody Vanderburg, 36. He suffered burn-out after battling depression and working hours on end.
He said: “The workshops have given me a voice I’ve never had and I’ve applied for a job at the Soho Theatre and entered a BBC comedy writer’s competition.”
And giving a taste of his material, he added: “My name is Jody… it’s neither masculine nor feminine. Better than being named after the place you were conceived, like Brooklyn Beckham. I got lucky. Unlike my sister Gym. Or brother, Asda Car Park.”
Mum-of-two Marion Brown, 46, was referred to the school after a terrifying episode of psychosis.
She said: “With anxiety and depression you always have this running commentary about how bad and useless you are. Getting that to shut up and just talking is massively helpful. I manage everything better and I have learned to build resilience. It’s saved me.”
Another pupil is Phillip Bayes, 43, who suffered depression and anxiety for a decade after his Nan died.
He said: “I was worried about performing at the end of the workshop and forgetting my words. It was scary but rewarding when you get up, make someone else laugh and laugh yourself. It has opened me up to be a better version of myself and saved my life.”
Mum-of-two and support worker Allison Miles, 57, was referred to the school after 30 years of depression. She said: “It has given me more faith in my ability to be creative and I would like to do an acting course next.”
Teacher Luke Sorba, who runs the workshops, said: “Many of our students worry about stuff from the past, what people think of them and about something that is coming up.
“But when the improvisation takes over and they are ‘in the moment’, the commentary about how bad they are stops.”
School founder and director Keith Palmer said: “Comedy can be used as a medicinal and rehabilitation tool, rather than just entertainment. Coming here really does change lives for the better.”
Founded in 1998, The Comedy School launched its Wellbeing Project in 2016 with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Social Inclusion, Hope and Recovery Project (SHARP).
Laughing releases “feel good” endorphins and other hormones linked to reducing stress and strengthening social ties.
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