By Matt Dusenbury
There was silence at first, the audience unsure what the slender boy dressed in black on stage would do next.
Then, with a burst of energy, 16-year-old Michael McCreary leapt to the front of the platform, his hands placed firmly on his hips.
“And now, in an effort to promote Aspie awareness, I’ve created Socially-Awkward Man,” he announced to the auditorium, striking a pose like Superman.
The crowd burst out laughing.
McCreary was the youngest performer in Stand Up For Mental Health, a show performed at Western University March 22 as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. The group featured four comedians, all of whom have been diagnosed with mental health issues, performing stand-up comedy to raise funds for the First Episode Mood & Anxiety Program (FEMAP) at the London Health Sciences Centre.
Hailing from Orangeville, Ont., McCreary was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder, at age five. He also suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, which made school particularly difficult.
“I got into a rough patch in Grade 8,” recalled McCreary.
|Courtesy of Facebook|
|Michael McCreary uses comedy as a way to educate people about mental illness.|
It was around that time his mother encouraged him to enroll in Stand Up For Mental Health classes in Guelph, where people with mental health issues as it says on its website “learn to turn their problems into comedy.” Soon afterward, McCreary – who calls himself an “Aspie” for short – was performing stand-up across Ontario and eastern Canada. He performed in venues ranging from conference halls to university campuses, in an effort to raise awareness about mental health.
“This whole thing is about taking something we’re afraid to laugh at and laughing about it,” said McCreary. “It’s fantastic.”
It was the second time in two years Stand Up For Mental Health performed at Western. The show was organized by the Western chapter of Active Minds, a student-run group dedicated to eradicating the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Jeanine Lane, a fourth-year student who helped put on the event, was thrilled at the high turnout.
“It’s very nice to have such support for the event,” she said. “A lot of people just don’t feel comfortable talking about (mental illness), but shows like this can make a difference.”
For Lane, it’s the comedians’ unique blend of comedy and candid descriptions of living with their disorders that makes Stand Up For Mental Health an interesting and captivating show.
|Photo by Matt Dusenbury|
|Jeanine Lane and Kopi Thiyagalingam work to eliminate the social stigma surrounding mental health issues.|
Al Strong, 52, is a fellow performer of McCreary’s who acted as emcee for the evening. Along with his own jokes, he used the stage to educate the audience and put the importance of mental health into perspective.
“Unfortunately, mental health is still one of the last taboo subjects,” he told the crowd. “And not talking about it is the barrier for treatment.”
Although billed as an evening of fun, the 90-minute show was tailored to cut through that barrier by getting people to talk about the mental health problems they’ve faced, either personally or through family members.
“Humour is a way of breaking down those walls,” said Strong. “We want to open up the conversation.”
Event organizers wore green shirts – the official colour of Mental Health Awareness Week – as a way to promote awareness, the backs of which featured the slogan, “1 in 3 people will suffer from a mental health problem.”
At one point, Strong asked audience members whether they knew someone who suffered from a mental illness. Nearly everyone’s hand went up.
Building that connection and sense of community is what McCreary enjoys the most about his performances and why he plans to continue traveling with Stand Up For Mental Health.
“It’s really a great sensation,” he said. “I love doing it.”
[View the story “Why so serious?” on Storify]
BELOW: A Stomp on Stigma personal story by Grace Jones.