Comedian and author Sara Benincasa uses humor to discuss mental illness and suicide
Stand-up comedy might seem like a nerve-wracking form of performance art, especially if the performer has suffered panic attacks since childhood. But early in Sara Benincasa’s career as a comedian, she felt in control only while on stage.
“You don’t really have control—nobody has control,” she said during a recent phone interview. “A boulder could fall through the ceiling at any moment, you know, theoretically. But being on stage, you have an audience that gives you attention … You have authority in that moment.”
Suffice it to say, she isn’t in a position of authority during a panic attack—an emotional and physical response Benincasa characterizes as “the exact inverse of an orgasm” or “the moment right before you throw up, but extended and combined with the fear that you’re going to die.”
She had her first panic attack at 8 or 9 years old and as a teenager began experiencing bouts of severe depression and crippling agoraphobia—an anxiety disorder with which the sufferer, who often has experienced one or more panic attacks, avoids places and situations where he or she might feel helpless, trapped or embarrassed, according to MayoClinic.org.
On top of her career as a comedian, Benincasa, 34, is an author and mental health advocate. She chronicled her struggles with mental health in her 2012 memoir, Agorafabulous!: Dispatches from my Bedroom, upon which she developed a pilot TV show of the same name for ABC Family. (She’s currently waiting to hear whether the network will order more episodes.)
Benincasa also will draw from Agorafabulous! during her talk at the Bell Memorial Union Auditorium on Thursday (Oct. 8) as part of Chico State’s Suicide Prevention Week (Oct. 5-10). Her goal is to break down the stigmas and stereotypes associated with mental illness, she says, as well as encourage students to make use of the mental health services on and beyond campus.
For Benincasa, such sincere messages are most effectively delivered with a touch of humor.
“Being funny is an invaluable tool in discussing serious issues,” she said. “If you can get someone to laugh, their defenses go down and they’re more likely to listen to you talk about something they find objectionable or strange or frightening.”
It’s good, then, that much of the student body at Chico State is open to discussing personal problems and mental health, says Jasmine Buck, events coordinator for UMatter, a student-led program through Chico State’s Counseling and Wellness Center. Buck is overseeing Suicide Prevention Week for the first time this semester.
“The Counseling Center is always slammed, so obviously plenty of students are accessing those resources,” she said. “But the students we worry about are the students who are silently suffering with their problems. We want to show all students its OK to talk about it.”
Another core message UMatter hopes to deliver during Suicide Prevention Week is the importance of intervention from friends and family and recognizing the warning signs of suicide, such as social withdrawal and suicidal ideation.
“Oftentimes it’s a small act from a friend that stops someone from attempting suicide,” Buck said. “Also, just knowing there are reasons for living and that there are people who can help—people who have been there, too. That’s a big message of ours.”
Buck also emphasizes that, while suicide is more prevalent among mentally ill people, even so-called “normal” people are only a personal tragedy away from finding themselves in that same dark place.
“Just because you don’t have mental illness doesn’t mean you can’t get there,” she said. “Something can happen that makes you consider, ’What are my reasons for living?’”
That’s the inspiration for the “Before I Die Wall”—a giant chalkboard on which students write their life’s aspirations—which will be on display in front of the Student Services Center all week. Other events include mental health movie screenings on Wednesday (Oct. 7) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Community Walk, starting at Chico City Plaza on Saturday (Oct. 10).
As for the keynote speaker, Buck says she recruited Benincasa because she wanted an impactful personality who has personally struggled with mental health.
Benincasa has indeed struggled, but now manages her symptoms through what she calls “complementary medicine.” It’s a broad approach including medication, support from family and friends, cognitive behavioral therapy—which employs techniques such as regulated breathing to slow her heart rate during panic attacks—mindful meditation and “the right diet choices.”
Since she’s known the depths of suicidal depression first-hand, Benincasa recognizes that “suicide is a terrible tragedy, but it’s not an entirely unpreventable one.”
In many cases, she says, such tragedy can be avoided if help is available when people are most vulnerable. That’s why Benincasa recommends seeking out a trustworthy psychiatrist who has experience treating his or her specific condition, but emphasizes that access to mental health services is not equal.
“I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great professionals, and some lemons; that happens,” she said. “Generally, I’ve had access to great care, and a lot of people don’t have that. It’s all about money. One of my missions is to make mental health care affordable to anyone.”
Benincasa also hopes that using humor, and her status as “a not particularly famous person,” will prompt discussions of mental health at Chico State.
“If I can just show up, be reasonably charming and amiable and get across the message that people who consider suicide are not losers, cursed or awful—they’re just people who could use some help—then I’ve done my job.”