Juliette Burton is an award-winning comedian, writer, presenter and mental health activist. In 2012 she became one of the first stand-up comedians to address mental health directly on stage at the Edinburgh Fringe, and has since done a series of sell-out comedy shows on the subject that have toured the UK and internationally.

Juliette has been diagnosed with OCD, anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety disorder, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. She has experienced psychosis involving hallucinations, paranoia and agoraphobia as well as social anxiety disorder and was sectioned under the Mental Health Act at the age of 17. She has since become an ambassador for the mental health charity Rethink Mental Illness, and worked on projects with Mind, Time to Change and the Mental Health Foundation, running training and consultancy on mental illness and disability in the workplace.   

We interviewed Juliette in December 2023 as we were developing our Performing Anxiety resource.

You’ve said there was a point in time, around 2012, when you first decided to address your mental health in your comedy. Can you talk about that decision?

Absolutely. So after doing many other jobs in journalism and broadcast I started doing VoiceOver, and then eventually started writing comedy, because I found that a lot of the acting work that I was getting was, you know, either love interests or sex interests. And I thought ‘this is frustrating’, and I wanted to have a voice. So I started writing comedy, mainly with writing partners. And in 2012 we – myself and my comedy partner at the time – did a show where we were raising money for the mental health charity MIND. We knew we wanted to raise money for charity, but we chose MIND because we were at the Edinburgh Fringe and 5 August, which always falls during the Fringe, is the anniversary of when I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. And it was the ten year anniversary in 2012. 

I was very nervous of saying anything but my wonderful comedy partner at the time, who is still one of my absolute best friends, she encouraged me and said, ‘Look, I’m right here. And you know, it’s up to you. But I think it could be really special.’ So, on the anniversary itself, I explained why it was we were raising money for MIND and I just mentioned that it was section under the Mental Health Act. It wasn’t a huge audience but the people there chatted to me afterwards and told me how important it was to them to hear that. And that gave me enough confidence to then say, well, maybe I’ll try it again tomorrow and be open about it. 

And throughout the course of that particular Edinburgh Fringe, it became apparent to me what it means to audiences to have someone be up there and saying, ‘this is my history, this is my lived experience.’ And in a safe enough space, that it’s not head in hands and ‘woe is me’, it’s experience, strength and hope, most importantly. And so that sort of set in motion a chain of events. The following year I did a solo show. I’d offered it to my comedy partner and she said, actually, I think this is your journey now. And that was when I did a whole solo show where I came out about being sectioned, about having had anorexia and other mental illnesses. I didn’t go into too much detail, but I did explain a bit more than I had done previously. And the interest from the press, from audiences, from the industry was apparent in 2013. So much so that I went on an Australian tour for three months. And I already had plans to sort of build on this in future shows… please stop me if I’m going into too much detail.

No, this is really interesting! Please carry on.

Well, with that sort of coming out show in 2012, it became apparent that a lot of people would come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Oh, when did you get better?’ And it was so quickly a bugbear of mine, ‘oh, this is where we’re at. People think that just because I’m talking about it I’m magically better.’ So in the next show, which I got Arts Council funding for researching, I addressed that it’s an invisible illness. 

I have 15 diagnoses. I mean, we can get into that as another topic maybe later on, the concept of diagnosis, but my perception was people thought that just because you’re talking about it, you were fine, and I knew, I still know, that I might look a certain way but appearances can be deceptive. So that kick-started the next project, which then became the most successful show to date. We had a sold out year in 2015, it won awards in 2014 and 2015. And what I learned through performing that was that people seemed to think that because I was talking about eating disorders, that was the thing, that was my thing. And actually I’ve got depression, anxiety, these interrelated conditions. So I thought, well, I’m going to push this a bit further. And everything I do in life, I think, is to push the boundaries, to test the boundaries, but also to say, right, ‘I know where we need to go’. And let’s just find the comfort level, find the tolerance level that I have to perform, and that the audience has to receive. And that definitely changes from audience to audience. 

So the show I did, in 2016, was about suicide, about trigger warnings, about the decision to stay alive and why do we make that decision. And then, the following year, I did another incredibly successful show. I kind of set out this plan, a series of shows I wanted to do, each one pushing the boundaries a bit further. So having pushed those boundaries that I’ve mentioned thus far, the next one I wanted to try to address was what happened when I was sectioned. Again, always trying to make sure that it was responsibly done. So no re traumatising, or triggering anybody. Then I wanted to talk about the hallucinations I experienced. Having shed the skin of talking about eating disorders and shed the skin of I’m talking about body dysmorphic disorder and the fact that eating disorders still are something I deal with, I was ‘okay, anxiety and depression are also the bedrock of these experiences.’ And the choice to stay alive is a difficult one for many. Next I wanted to talk about kindness, and the power of kindness not just in mental health, but as humans, and also linking that to my psychosis, hallucinations that I’ve had, and try to make that palatable, to really look into the eyes of the fear of insanity and make it have a friendly face. To say, actually, there’s nothing to be scared of. It’s bizarre to be human anyway.

That show was another huge success – two sold out years at the Edinburgh Fringe, lots of awards, a national tour that was really well received. Then off the back of that, the next show  – I’m trying to make sure I’m not losing track of my shows – I think the next show was Defined, which was the one going into labels and whether we define ourselves by our labels, because by that point I’d had a lot of people sort of introduce me as a mental health comedian. And I was like, is that who I am? I thought it was comedy. I thought comedian comes before the mental health but apparently, I’m the go to girl for mental health comedian. So I wanted to kind of look at labels because, by that point, I collected more diagnoses as well. And I wanted to look at the labels that we might find useful to find people of a similar ilk to us, but how restrictive they might be and what hindrances they might have. And using the kind of guise of, let’s talk about mental illness, but as a kind of intersectionality leaping off point, if you will, for looking at other labels. By that point I’d also done a lot of work with fellow disabled comedians and disability rights activists. That had really galvanised me, ‘this is where I want to go, this is what I want to do. This is my purpose.’ 

Of course, the pandemic put a stop to the tour, but since then some other things have happened. So I can talk about other shows as well, if you would so wish, but we probably can pause there for a moment.

You talked about making sure that it was ‘palatable’ for the audience, but what about the impact on you of doing all this material? How has it been to tell these stories? And has that changed over the years?

Yes, it definitely has. In fact, it has probably even changed in my experience since we last spoke about this. So you know, ten years ago when I first did the coming out show, if you will, I was very nervous. I didn’t know how it’d be received, I was scared. But suddenly, over the next few years, I became a bit of a poster child. Because I really wasn’t scared to talk about it, it gradually became this kind of thing. ‘This is the right way, this is the way that we need to go in society.’ Because there are so many people that I’ve met worldwide with similar stories of isolation because they’ve had diagnosis or they’ve had less common experiences of what it means to be human. And it’s the loneliness that seems to be the killer, nothing else. It’s not the actual condition. It’s not the hindrances that might be caused, it’s the separation that society and the systems that we live within have constructed. 

And that is the big bad, the true fear, I believe, not the fear of losing one’s mind – I’ve been there, done that, got the straitjacket. It’s being separated from others. And that is something that happens far too frequently with many disabilities, but definitely, acutely with mental health, because people are scared, and we become outcasts. And I would say that, yeah, it became this kind of real call in me, I felt like it was very much ‘I cannot not do this, I have to do it.’ 

And then the pandemic hit, and that certainly shifted things because I’d built a following. I now understand that many, many people who like my shows are neurodivergent, or have their own experiences of mental illness, not always both of those things but frequently both of those things. And I didn’t understand boundaries at that time. So although I worked very closely with a lot of charities, because a lot of audience members would open up to me, would turn to me for not only for advice, but also if they were in distress, after shows I would hear so many incredible stories about lived experience from that individual or from someone they were concerned about. And they were just desperately seeking help and advice. 

And there wasn’t somewhere that they knew where to turn to. And there’s only so much that certain charities can do. There’s certainly only so much that an individual can do. We need services, governmental policy, infrastructure, diagnosis, treatment change. Maybe we’ll come on to that in a bit because I do now work for mental health research charity as well. But the experience of that was one that I rapidly learned the importance of in the pandemic, it was shocking to hear the pain of people. And so this would be remote audiences and people getting in touch, and that is that separation I mentioned earlier. Looking back now, I can see how that I knew at the time it was difficult and painful for them, and for me. But looking back, I can see how damaging that time was for so many. And we’re only now starting to get the research about exactly why that might be in terms of neuroscience. 

During the pandemic, I did have a point when I was thinking, I don’t know how I can do this anymore. Am I able to perform anymore? because becoming a kind of figurehead for something poses problems. And at the time I was struggling with a lot of dark, dark, personal things. And I wasn’t sure how going back to Edinburgh after four years away was going to be, I wasn’t sure whether audiences still needed this. And I wanted to keep building, not just staying confident in my comfort zone, but constantly pushing my own comfort zone. 

And I’m delighted to say that it turns out that audiences, so many, not all of them, but so many depending on where you are, have moved along in that journey. They’ve moved along, and I know kind of one person’s experience of kind of measuring the temperature of the audience comfort levels in various parts of the UK, certainly and internationally. I think we’ve definitely moved on massively. I think a lot more people are much more chilled, listening and talking. It might also be that I’m much more confident in talking about it, and I’ve had this kind of reawakening of ‘Oh, of course, this is what I meant to do. There’s nothing like this.’ For me, this is absolutely intrinsically who I am. And I’m really good at it. And I’m not going to turn away from it. Even if you know the industry there might be things that we were still up against, barriers that we’re still up against. But I think that in terms of that purity of audience connection and what the need is in the world, it’s still very much there, the audience needs this, audiences are much more open to talking comfortably about their lived experience. There’s still a gap – severe mental illnesses, and acute experiences for sure. What do we do now? Now that we’re all very aware now that a lot of us are very comfortable talking about it? What next? What’s the next move?

I wanted to touch on something you’ve said to me previously, which is that at one point you felt that by making comedy out of traumatic experiences you perhaps weren’t confronting them in the way that you needed to.

Yeah. So there is a term that I learned in my ongoing journey of therapy in the last couple of years, called performative surface level engagement, which is a phrase used when talking about PTSD. The idea is that we can tell a fixed narrative, we can get so comfortable, almost too comfortable with a certain fixed level of telling a story, you know, beginning, middle, end, and we stay sort of hidden by being removed through the repetition of that fixed story. And we can distance ourselves, especially if you’ve lived through traumatic experiences, from really processing and feeling the pain of whatever that experience or experiences might be. 

I definitely feel that it’s not for everybody to perform and tell stories about their lived experience of mental illness. I also recognise that there was a lot of pain that I didn’t confront, or I had confronted to a safe enough point. And I stayed there. I stayed stuck there. A bit like with society, we get to a certain level where we’ll have comfort around a certain topic, and suddenly we find ourselves stuck. And we don’t actually address the causes or the systemic issues that mean that people are oppressed or discriminated against. And I feel that for me, now, in the last couple of years, I’ve pushed my window of tolerance a bit wider. 

Having had that realisation, how did that impact on you? Did the way you do comedy change? 

Good question. In terms of comedy, having had that realisation…. I actually had it during… I don’t like the term breakdown, because I’ve had it used against me as one of those words that indicates weakness, and it isn’t, so then you sort of go into all these very cliched ideas of ‘it was wasn’t a break down, it was a breakthrough.’ It was painful. Am I allowed to swear Andrew? I keep wanting to.

Yes you are.

It was painful as f***, it was so…. I have never experienced and I swear, even when I was sectioned, even when I have been suicidal, when I was younger, when I made attempts on my life, I have never experienced what I experienced in the last couple of years. And I think it came from that. That different place of having felt so secure, having come through what I’ve come through, so I had thought, and then to reach these new depths of… not even despair, it was self-awareness and regret. And I had just got Arts Council funding to write a show about hope and how to find hope when things seem hopeless, which was very much on brand. It was very Barbie, but a pre Margot Robbie version of Barbie, it was very glitter and glitz and loveliness. And I was fully on board. ‘I’m going to write the show, I’m going to research hope.’ And then I had my breakdown / breakthrough eventually, you know, all these terms ‘dark night of the soul’. And at the time it didn’t help to hear that, like everyone kept saying, just allow time. And it’s like, well, how much time? Because I don’t know how much I can tolerate this. 

But I couldn’t write about hope. I was just, like, this is too cliched. I don’t know how to quantify hope. I don’t know what I’ve been doing. I don’t know if who I am or what I do is useful anymore. So I wrote a show about neuroscience instead. Because at the time, that was where I was finding any very small glimmers of hope, in learning about why our bodies and brains work the way they work, why I’ve been behaving so bizarrely, why it’s hurt so many people in the past. And I learned a lot about complex PTSD as well – childhood, ongoing, pervasive trauma, getting baked into the fabric of our brains, which some neuroscientists say can be classed as brain damage because it’s part of the fabric of how your brain develops, so trauma responses are baked into your psychology and your physiology. 

And the more I learned about it, the more I was like, wow, I make sense. This response is a response that makes programming sense. I’ve been programmed a certain way. It’s a little less common than others. But this is why it happened. So I decided that was what I was going to write the show about. because it felt like there were a lot of really useful things that I was learning that maybe a lot of other people might benefit by learning as well. So it was a sort of slightly different approach to how I’ve done other shows. In other shows you hear me telling a story of experience, strength and hope. This one was very much, ‘I’ve learned some stuff and I found some hope in it. I hope you do, too.’ I had a great time doing the show, the national tour’s just finished. And now I’m ready for the next thing, ready for the next call to action show. Because I’ve had a long time to think about where we’re going next and what I feel my voice needs to say as well. 

So I’d say that in terms of performing as well, because that was the root of what your question was, there are some subtle differences. I’ve stopped wearing super showbiz busy glitter and glitz. I think it might be a temporary stop. Costume is fascinating, and masks are a fascinating concept in theatre and in life. I’m a massive Bowie fan, Bowie has seen me through so much. And as Bowie or Madonna or Kylie or all of the greats would say, you know, there are different transitions, different transformations, from Taylor Swift to Lizzo, if you want to bring it to a bit more up to date. We have to embrace new areas of ourselves and shed our skins. So yeah, I’m finding new costumes and a new voice. It’s pretty damn powerful. 

So you are using costumes? I thought you said you were wearing costumes less?

You’re correct in both of those comments. So for example, last night I was performing and I didn’t really do anything, I didn’t even put lipstick on, it was just me in a Christmas jumper, in what I’d normally wear, so it’s getting more at ease with ‘this is just me and I’m just going to do some of my favourite material’. I love a spectacle, you know, I like bit of glitz and glamour. If I’ve given you my money for an hour, I want you to really give me a show. For that level I would say I’m still wearing costumes, but I’d say that I’m much more considered and intentional about what those costumes are saying about who I am, and more considerate and intentional about who I actually am now. Okay.

I want to come back to a word that you used earlier, ‘boundaries’, which is a word that comes up quite often in these conversations. Obviously, you’re opening up about very difficult stuff to a group of strangers, and they will bring their own stories and experiences to that, as you said, and that’s part of the deal. But are there things that you do to protect yourself from the excesses of that? Because I can imagine there are people who really want to share difficult experiences with you.

So I actually still use similar tools from years ago that a couple of charities recommended I use. So firstly, having learned about the nervous system, I make sure that I’m in a safe, super grounded state before talking to people. I can usually tell what sort of state someone’s in after a show so you know, lots of them are bounding out saying ‘That was great, can I buy you a drink?’ but then there’ll be, occasionally as you say, somebody coming up with maybe a slightly more agitated state, or slightly more concerned, looking like they need help. So I get myself into a grounded nervous system state, safe, secure, connected, breathing, feet planted, and I’m crossing my arms and breathing very deeply focusing on my posture and lots of theatrical techniques that performers use to calm the other systems, but just to make sure that I’m grounded, and I have that kind of resource to draw upon. And then I will always listen to them, I will focus on some key rules of not comparing, projecting or trying to solve the problem. I’ll check in with them about what it is that they are looking for. If they’re telling me stuff, I’ll always make sure that I focus on empathy, because I think one of the biggest things that this has been missing, and certainly I know is very powerful in my life, is compassion. So radical compassion, non-judgement. And if they do say that they need support or help, then I’ll make sure that I put in place a boundary of ‘I’m not a therapist, I’m a comedian, I’m not the one to help you. I’m not medically qualified in any way. But there are many other places that you can go to.’ 

I’ve collected – through my many years of performing comedy, but also doing workshops, facilitating mental health workshops for schools, colleges, workplaces, government agencies, even – a number of different resources, whether that be charities you can turn to which are fantastic – but also, you know, massively underfunded and stretched themselves – or apps, podcasts, books; however, again, with that, it’s not one size fits all. And making sure that people do know that, ideally, we would all be able to turn to our GPS, we would all be able to get an appointment, we would all be able to have the time, we need to get a proper diagnosis. So that’s why having a veritable smorgasbord of resources, and picking and choosing one to five different things to try, is not a bad idea. 

And I make sure that I let them know that you can follow me on social media and let me know how you get on, but we will have to keep firm boundaries with what that looks like. Because certainly, there’s a very interesting parasocial dynamic that happens between performer and audience member.

In recent years there’s been this huge rise in the number of comedy shows about mental health. And you were ahead of the curve in this, making that first show in 2012. It was in 2014, when Robin Williams died, it sent this very visible shockwave through the comedy world, and the year after that, 2015, is when you really start to see comedians talking about mental health more. There was then a point where, for three years in a row, the winner of the Edinburgh Comedy Award was somebody who was addressing trauma in some way, or dealing with very difficult experiences. How did you feel about all that?

I found it fascinating. I think there’s been so much we could talk about, why specifically people like him (Robin Williams), or me, struggle with the things we struggle with. That’s possibly another conversation. But I remember that was when I was asked to do a lot of press interviews around the subject for the very first time – it was, well, this has happened and we need someone to comment on it from an informed perspective. There’s only so many psychologists that are entertaining to listen to. Sorry, psychologists – actually I’ve now immediately thought of about five that are very entertaining, so forgive me. But I did notice this kind of upswing. And there was a period of time where it was almost like people would turn to me, ‘how do you do it? I want to do it’ and it’s like, well, I can’t tell you how to do it because it has to be an intrinsic motivation, it can’t come externally. It can’t be learned. You have to have experienced something and feel and be in the right place, having dealt with it separately, to tell a story about it without damaging you, as we’ve discussed. 

I have found, in the last few years, there’s a kind of fatigue of ‘trauma farming’. The industry couldn’t get enough of farming for trauma, and it became a kind of a paint by numbers exercise. Many shows were creating not something new that’s pushing the conversation forward, but just staying in this one space, which is horrific when it comes to talking about trauma, or any painful experience. You know, for a lot of people who work in comedy – this is going to sound crass and horrible – but we all have to do, at some point, the ‘dead dad show’. And whether you can do that in a new and interesting way is a part of the artistic idea. But why do we have to do that? What is it that we need to say? And I think we’re now moving into this strange space where I still see the world needing help with these topics but it’s almost as if we’ve overegged the pudding. I’m standing in my kitchen making birthday cakes, by the way, that’s why I’ve used that analogy. But I think there’s too many people doing it not so well. I think we’ve still got so much left to talk about, but it’s about making sure that we’re really considered and intentional about what it is we’re going to address next.

You’ve covered this a bit already but what would you say to a comedian who was thinking about making a show about mental health?

I would say first off, make sure you’re in a safe space to do that, meaning, where are you at in your journey? Have I really dealt with this? You know, when you’re alone late at night at 3am, and there’s no one around you, really ask yourself, have I dealt with it? Another question to ask is, why are you doing it? Are you doing it because you’re seeking fame and fortune? Because please, this is not the way if you want fame and fortune, there’s many other things that I’m sure are much, much more likely to give you fame and fortune. But the industry is fickle and fame and fortune does not ever come at the cost of sharing something that you’re not ready to or that won’t do you any good or the audience any good or society any good. 

If you really want to push the conversation forward, make sure you have the right support around you. Make sure you have collaborators who are going to help bring out the fun in you and the playfulness, because comedy is light in the darkness but even I need to find new and playful ways to tell different stories and to reach new levels of not just depth of experience, but actually lightness, the heights of comedy, to balance it out. If you’re going to go really dark, make sure you go really playful at the same time. And I’d say get in touch with me. Because it’s not good to do it alone. Although having said that… boundaries. I do see I’m still learning.

Is there a grey area here in terms of people being ready to share? One of the first things you said in this conversation was that when you first started doing comedy about mental health, people assumed you’d recovered, but you hadn’t. How do you know when you’re ready?

I think I was ready to engage with it at that level, and I have no regrets of doing that at that level. But when I say ‘that level’, it’s only people who have seen that show who will know what level I’m talking about, right? That’s partly also why (I chose) comedy as opposed to visual art, or even theatre. Theatre is very close to comedy but comedy is absolutely the most direct collaboration between audience and performer. I’m a massive Shakespeare nerd. I mean, come on, my name is Juliette, but mainly because Romeo and Juliet is not a love story, it’s about childhood trauma. Anyway, that’s another conversation. We’ll have that down the pub, Andrew, some time. But I think with theatre there’s a beautiful geometry of how much energy is the audience giving? How much are they engaging with what it is that’s being spoken about? Now that can be influenced by the weather, even if it’s an indoor theatre, certainly in Edinburgh, anyone who’s performed in Edinburgh will tell you if it’s been a certain type of weather, whether it’s been too hot, too rainy, too cold, it matters what energy the audience are bringing in with them. And in fact, if you have one performer on stage, and 50, 100, 200 audience members, they are the ones with the power, it isn’t you on stage. If you deliver a line, one audience will potentially find it the funniest line ever, if they have a certain set of references, if you’re in a certain dynamic, a certain temperature, a certain room, a certain town in the world, just certain experiences. 

So over the years, for example, I know that in Edinburgh, a lot of people who come to see me know me, they also themselves are quite comfortable talking about their mental health. So if that audience is populated with people who have that kind of experience, that’ll be a very different response to people who might be coming in expecting just a comedy show. It’ll be a very different set of responses to people who have a certain age group, certain political persuasions, all of this is going to influence the response. 

So, going back to your previous question as well, if anyone is thinking about doing this kind of thing, are you prepared for that? Are you prepared for the chaos and the lack of control and the self-awareness that you will build because if you are, amazing, welcome to the club. It’s a neurodivergent dream and nightmare at the same time, you cannot control anything and yet it’s amazing. If it’s for you, it’s incredible. And I started going off on a tangent. What was the last question you asked me?

It was ‘how do you know when you’re ready?’ I was talking to a theatre performer this week, who did a very personal show about her mental health, and it was very successful, but I remember her saying that one of the things she had to get past was the worry that if people didn’t like the show it was because they didn’t like her. I imagine that’s even more amplified in comedy, isn’t it? 

I mean, if we’re gonna talk about comedy theory, please let’s, because that’s my favourite thing. If you go on stage, there’s reasons why we use phrases like, oh, ‘I slayed last night on stage’, or ‘I died on stage last night’. There’s an idea that comedians are going out there and we’re trying to slay a beast, you know, it’s the audience versus the performer. I read that theory, years ago, when I first started getting into comedy. And I was like, actually, I think I want to do something different. I want it to be ‘they’re my heroes, the audience are my absolute legends, I’m nothing without them, they’re the ones with the power, if they don’t laugh, then I’m not funny.’ And you know, it’s literally as simple as that. I want to make sure that they know that they are incredible, because I didn’t have that enough in my past. Not in the comedy world, but in personal experience, my actual life, I felt I didn’t have that enough. So I want to make sure that they know, from the first minute of me being on stage, they are in a safe space, and that they are incredible, the most important thing. 

And actually, do you know what, this is a key point. I used to seek external validation from audiences. I now understand why that was, I do not judge my past self for that, but, much like with social media, I was searching for an external validation of a sense of self that hadn’t been properly built within me from childhood upwards. So if you’re going into performing comedy, with unmet childhood needs, then that is not a good way to go. Please don’t. Please do some work on yourself. Take years away to work on yourself before you put yourself out there on stage. Otherwise you can potentially cause yourself even more problems in the future. 

But isn’t that really common among comedians? It’s a kind of comedy cliché in fact, that comedians have some unmet need.

Yeah, but as soon as you recognise it, as soon as you have the tools to go, ‘oh, I know why that stung a bit more than usual, it’s because I haven’t actually addressed those needs within myself,’ then you have the tools with which you can give yourself the first step from which to deal with it. 

I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but can I go back to something you said earlier, you said that becoming a ‘figurehead’ can create problems. I wondered what you meant by that?

Well, I think this has happened for a few of my disabled friends as well who are in the entertainment industry, where you sort of become an accidental figurehead, like we’re just fools trying to make people laugh and, hopefully, maybe change the world for the better a tiny bit, some of us just want to make people laugh, some of us want external validation, like we’ve just discussed, but sometimes there’ll be some sort of Zeitgeist that’s got caught by a particular individual, and they get put into a kind of them versus us situation. Because again, given the context in which we’re discussing this, right, I feel this very passionately from a disability community point of view – and I will clarify that I count severe mental illnesses as disabilities – a them versus us mentality dating back to the Victorian era, of freak shows or buying tickets to go visit the lunatics in the asylum, you know, the odds versus the normals. And then you move into more recent years where it became inspiration porn, you know – oh my goodness, they’re so incredible, so amazing, so inspiring. I hate that word. Okay, what am I inspiring you to do? Tell me what you’re about to go do, yeah, if I’m properly inspiring. Don’t just make me inspiration porn. No, go off and do something, like, take that energy and make the world a better place, please. Anyway, sorry. I’m not sorry. Sorry. Then we’re going into that. So that’s still a them versus us mentality. 

It’s just, again, really basic stuff I learned in therapy years ago, which was the idea that ‘I’m okay, you’re okay.’ That’s the ideal, right? If everybody is okay. But some people have to live by a mentality of ‘you’re not okay. I’m okay.’ Putting somebody else down so that their ego is kept at that happier level, basic bullying. 

That would be the freak show sort of vibe. Then you’ve got ‘I’m not okay. You’re okay.’ So that’s the inspiration for ‘You’re incredible. You’re a hero. I’m not worthy.’ And that’s equally unhealthy. We need to move in society towards an idea of ‘I’m okay. And you’re okay.’ ‘I recognise who I am. I recognise my limitations. I recognise my difficulties. They don’t need to be quantified.’

You know, I hate when people put me on a soapbox, and people come up to me like, ‘Oh, I’ve had experiences of this, but they’re not like yours, it’s nothing as bad as yours.’ And I’m like, ‘pain is pain.’ It doesn’t matter. If somebody chops my foot off, and your leg is chopped off. Am I going to say ‘Oh, well, you know, it doesn’t hurt as bad… No, if it’s difficult for you, that’s all I really care about. 

So yeah, I don’t like the fact that we have to quantify and put ourselves in some sort of league table for psychological pain, because even just being alive, whether you know it or not, even if you think that you’re mentally healthy, is painful. Just like we’re all temporarily able bodied, we’re all temporarily psychologically well.

Thanks so much Juliette. There’s lots here to go away and think about. I particularly wanted to talk to you, because you were very much at the forefront of it comedians opening up about mental health. Back in 2012, were you aware of other people doing that? 

No, I wasn’t aware. When I first was taken to therapy, my mother gave me – and you know, we didn’t talk about it because, you know, it wasn’t the done thing to talk about it – but my mother gave me an article, an interview with Stephen Fry. And I remember reading it, and he was talking about being bipolar. And this was at a time when I’d been diagnosed only with anorexia, I hadn’t yet been diagnosed with all of the other conditions. And although it didn’t immediately change my story – I still went on to be hospitalised and sectioned, and my conditions morphed into other conditions – it always stuck with me that there’s somebody out there talking about something similar. And that was enough to be like, ‘I know there are other people’. This was, you know, before the internet was everywhere. And I remember sort of feeling a bit like, these beacons, these very small beacons… I needed more of them. 

And if I can be a beacon to somebody, whether they need it or not, if somebody heard me talking very comfortably about being sectioned, the next time they come across somebody who has been sectioned, they might think of me and go, ‘oh, that that girl that I saw looked actually quite happy, and I don’t need to be scared.

It’s interesting to hear that, because it strikes me that one of the things that’s happened recently is that mental health shows have become more and more specific, because the depression shows have been done, or certain shows have been done already. I went to see a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2023 about violent, intrusive thoughts. It’s a very funny show, and at the end they do this incredible thing where they’ve won the audience’s trust so much that they get people to applaud if they’ve had a particular intrusive thought, like wanting to push somebody in front of a train. It seems to me that we’re now at a point where there are shows for lots of very specific mental health lived experiences. 

But also is there treatment available for everybody? If there’s a show for everybody, are we expecting too much of the arts, that arts is the answer? Where’s the research? Where’s the support for services? I’m an ambassador for Rethink Mental Illness, who I love, and I also am a copywriter for MQ Mental Health Research now, I started working with them a year ago. And I now know so much more about where we are with mental health science than I ever did before. And the disparity that has been going on for far too long between physical health and mental health, in terms of research. Yes, the two are interlinked, but what’s the point in having a healthy body if you don’t enjoy using it?

Do you feel like you’re an activist as much as you are a comedian? 

Yes, to certain agents’ upset in the past. But absolutely, I think for me, and I can’t speak for all comedians, but for me, my activism is baked into my comedy because – sorry, I’m still surrounded by cakes – it’s coming from the same motivation. I have to find laughter in life, because otherwise I don’t want to live. My mind doesn’t make it easy for me to live, because it’s highly sensitive. And I think very deeply, I feel very deeply. So if I’m not laughing, then it’s not worth the effort. And so I find the comedy comes from that. Comedy is also the perfect tool to break down those barriers and increase understanding. If we’re laughing together, we feel less alone. So it isn’t one or the other. They are one in the same thing.