Laughter the underestimated antidote for struggling communities

Increasing our daily dose of laughter is key to fighting the rising toll of depression, especially in the wake of recent crises around the nation, a Griffith researcher has found.

Griffith University adjunct lecturer in Suicidology and stand-up comedian for more than 20 years Mark McConville, has recently returned from an outback tour of his program, The Laughter Clinic, which highlighted the positive impact humour can have on mental health.

“In the space of one week, I’d go from talking to men in Thargomindah out near the South Australian border who haven’t had rain in eight years,” Mark says.

“A week later I’m in Townsville talking to guys who’ve lost millions of dollars worth of stock because of rain.

“We have protective factors for our mental health, like exercising and being in a relationship and having an income or whatever. For me personally, I’m advocating for having humour and laughter in your life as being a protective factor against mental ill health, because we need it.”

He is part of Griffith University’s Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, one of only five places in the world on the World Health Organization Collaborating Committee for suicide prevention and research.

Mark developed the Laughter Clinic program as part of his Masters Research, which was inspired by a chance meeting on a cruise ship.

“I’d done a late night comedy show on the cruise, and after the gig I had this couple coming up to me and they were in their mid to late 30s. Pretty fit looking couple. And the lady’s crying,” he says.

“And then she comes up and she wraps her arms around me and she goes, “I don’t know how I can possibly thank you, because I haven’t seen my husband laugh out loud for three years’.

“She couldn’t get over how it was that for the last three years, the people that were looking after her husband’s mental health and rehabilitation and everything, at no point had said, `Are you still able to laugh?’

“And I thought, well, maybe there’s more to being a comedian than just simply walking on stage and doing shows and stuff. So I started to look into that whole laughter is the best medicine and what laughter does to the body and the role of human psychology.”

He left high school at age 14, but Griffith University recognised Mark’s prior learning for 17 years as a professional comedian, and he finished his Masters with a Griffith Award for Academic Excellence in 2016.

“It’s a very nurturing environment here, I’ve found at Griffith, which has been great,” he says.

“I designed a five week human laughter education program for people with stress, anxiety and depression.

“My program’s a world first..It’s about exploring what is it that makes you laugh.”

He says a community wide approach to preventing suicide is crucial.

“After we lose someone to suicide, a lot of people say, `We had no idea. It happened out of the blue’,” he says.

“In actual fact, we know that there are warning signs, there are risk factors, there are protective factors.

“And it’s simply a case of educating people on what to look for. There’s three big main ones, hopelessness. People say that there’s nothing to look forward to in their life and they feel as though everything’s bad, right? That’s a warning sign.

“Isolation, not physical isolation, I talk about emotional isolation, like shutting yourself off from friends, family. That’s a warning sign.

“And the other one is seldom spoken about, it’s a thing called burdensomeness. And I’m very specific. I say, `If you hear this sentence or something similar, my friends and family would be better off without me around.’ That is a big red flag warning sign, because in that person’s mind, they actually believe that to be the case.

“Whether it’s starting to see a GP or a psychologist, or even encouraging them to make a phone call to Lifeline and say, “Look, I’m feeling this way. What can I do?” Even something as small as that can help start making a difference.”

Hear more of Mark McConville’s story on Griffith University’s Remarkable Tales podcast: