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Funny Medicine Helps Mental Health

Comedian Frank King came very close to committing suicide five years ago.

“I had an itch on the roof of my mouth that I could only scratch with the front sight on my nickel-plated .38,” King says, his voice a warm North Carolina drawl.

It almost sounds like King is cracking a joke. Starting Sunday, July 26, at the Wildish Theater in downtown Springfield, King will coach up to a dozen participants as they turn their mental health issues into short stand-up routines, which they will perform for audiences in November.

By 2010, the Great Recession had tanked King’s motivational speaking business and drained his bank accounts. Depressed, the only thing keeping him from firing the gun, he says, was the “suicide clause” in the million-dollar life insurance policy King had recently taken out; more powerful than his desire to kill himself was the horror King felt imagining his wife left with nothing.

So he muscled through the despair one day at a time, but King is never safe from feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. Comedy staves off his depression.

“Nobody dies laughing,” King says. “It’s hard to imagine someone pulling the trigger in the middle of a belly laugh.”

That’s why the 58-year-old comic teamed up with the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Lane County to establish a local chapter of Stand Up for Mental Health (SMH).

Launched in 2004, SMH partners with mental health services around the world to help those struggling with depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD and PTSD by teaching them to write and perform comedy about their troubles.

“Comedy is amazingly therapeutic,” King says. 

Open to everyone, the weekly class is aimed at supporting people who struggle with mental illness by providing them a safe, therapeutic outlet. The performance is meant to spark conversations about mental health in the broader public.

That’s important, King says, because despite how prevalent suicide and mental illness are, they are widely ignored and misunderstood.

NAMI estimates that, in the U.S. alone, one out of every four adults experiences some form of mental illness. Despite its prevalence, a stigma persists.

NAMI Lane County executive director Jose Soto-Gates says most people with mental health issues aren’t getting help.

“Most will never receive a diagnosis. Most will never get treatment. Most will never get the care they need. Most don’t even realize there are mental health issues involved,” Soto-Gates says.

By the time a person finds their way to NAMI, Soto-Gates says, they’re usually in crisis. “We want to get in front of the problem. We want to get people talking before it’s a crisis.”

Soto-Gates says SMH is one way of doing that. “It will help us have candid conversations that bring humor to the issue.” He says we need to be having these conversations, “and this is an awesome way to do it in settings where we wouldn’t normally be having them.”

When King heard about SMH last year, he began working right away to set up a local chapter. According to King, one of the rules of comedy is to never poke fun at a group to which you don’t belong.

“You need someone teaching this class,” King adds, “who knows the taste of gunmetal.”