When Mental Illness & Comedy Meet for Laughs: Cath Styles

A sense of humour has always been a core coping strategy of mine, and I've been exposed to this in enough of my favourite people and comedians to know I'm not the only one. Hell - Freud even backs me up, as he once pointed out that humour plays a significant role as a very real coping mechanism when it comes to stress. 

It's getting colder here in Melbourne, but we're warmed by the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF), and it is here that I got to chat through this same coping strategy with comedian and psych nurse, Cath Styles during her Festival run. Cath - a comedian for 10 years now, and an active nurse for 25 years - is in the midst of her latest show, 'Shift', which explores her career and personal balance in life.

'As a nurse, dark humour is my SPF100+. You can't be in this industry without it', Cath said.

'I use my experiences in nursing and mental health in my stand up because it's what I do, and what I'm passionate about'.

Having been on the circuit for some 10 years now, Cath recognises that more and more performers are using their own very person experiences - a number certainly dealing with mental health - in stand up. 

'I can identify at the festival more and more comedy that is representative of the community, as it should be’.

Cath addresses early on in her performance, the use of dark comedy to talk about her career through varying emergency, crisis, prevention and recovery psych roles. She believes that talking about her experience allows her to personally reflect on an extensive career, but also to create the right kind of dialogue around mental health. 

'To really reduce the stigma, we have to be less precious about our conversations about mental health. We need to be willing to chat about it.'

This dark humour was very evident in 'Shift', and gave a very real portrait of the caring aspect of mental health - not only the patient-carer realm, but in the systematic, processing realm (read: paperwork). 

The structure of 'Shift' plays a lot on time - clocking on for work, start times, twilight zones, not seeing full movies. And this 'time' idea is one of the biggest messages I took away from Cath's show. Well that and the very significant impact of a good Milo, anyway.

Cath tells a story early on about an experience, as she neared the end of a long shift. Caught late by a patient asking for just '5 minutes to chat', Cath quickly weighed up the options of leaving on time or risking a late one, and gave those precious '5 minutes'. As is the nurse's life, this 5 minute conversation revealed a significant experience, and saw a double-shift occur. Cath's only learning from this: Always give people the 5 minutes. You never know just how important it is.

Cath Styles' show, 'Shift' is being performed in The Downstairs Lounge @ the Grand Mercure Hotel on Swanston street in Melbourne, until April 17. Tickets available through TryBooking.

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