In 2011, TBS's "Dinner and a Movie," a show which paired movies with interstitial cooking lessons, was ending, and co-host Paul Gilmartin had been off his antidepressants for six months. He found himself suicidal, a place he hadn't been in eight years. Once he restarted antidepressants, his frustration over the connection between sudden suicidality resulting from his avoiding meds inspired him start his podcast—the Mental Illness Happy Hour—so that others might know how sneakily mental illness can lure a person to a destructive place.
He has since interviewed more than 300 people ranging from fellow comedians and mental health professionals to podcast listeners, as well as studied thousands of anonymous listener surveys that cover myriad challenges: addiction, gender, sexuality, eating disorders, and a spectrum of abuses and mood disorders. Survey results—in addition to discussion forums—are available on the Mental Pod website as a way for listeners to connect and share their experiences.
In each episode of the podcast, Gilmartin reminds both his guest and his listeners that he's not a therapist. "But," he'll sometimes say, "I did cook chicken on basic cable for 16 years." He's used to be being a familiar dinner guest—one that fosters honest conversation rather than trying to "fix" you. He believes having someone to struggle openly through mental illness with you is an empowering supplement to getting treatment.
It was in that struggle over several episodes in 2012 that Gilmartin made one of his most personal breakthroughs: Throughout childhood, he had been the victim of covert incest by his mother. That level of vulnerability—for Gilmartin, his guests, and his listeners—is what continues to grow the show even after six years.
Do you ever get pushback from mental health professionals that you're out here operating without a degree?
Never. I thought I would, but they've been so supportive.
I started this podcast to be a cheerleader for the things that worked for me, and I want to be very clear that the podcast is peer-to-peer. One of the things I learned in therapy and support groups is I'm not here to save people. I can maybe inspire somebody with stuff I've been through or share or give somebody else a platform to share their story.
There are now several podcasts about comedians and depression or addiction, either as their mission, like the Hilarious World of Depression, or as a side effect, like Marc Maron's WTF.
Maron was a big influence on my decision to start a podcast. There was nary a laugh in an hour-long interview [with Todd Hanson], but it was one of the most riveting things I've ever listened to. That seed was planted in my head and when I went off my meds and wanted to kill myself and snapped back to reality and realized it was the depression, that's when I [said], oh, a podcast would be a perfect medium to get the word out about how fucking cunning mental illness is.
What discussions have you encountered in your interviews that sparked moments of your own growth?
Probably the biggest ones are [about] trans issues. That has been a huge learning curve for me, and I'm still learning a bunch. Dissociative identity disorder, I've learned so much more about that, schizophrenia, OCD. I've really tried to have guests who have been marginalized by their issues [including] male sex abuse survivors, particularly where the abuser is female. Most people have no clue how much more common it is than they think.
Are people hungry for better information or do you think people are listening for less-than-compassionate reasons?
I think people listen for a variety of reasons: to get help, because they're voyeurs, they're curious, they like to be moved or they like to feel that their life isn't as fucked up. Judging by the emails I get, the two biggest things that people seem to take away from it are that it helps them feel less alone and it's kind of like a break from their lives.
What do you think listeners get out of interviews with everyday people who are dealing with mental illness?
One of the things I wanted to do by having everyday people alongside people in the public eye is to show we all feel the same inside. What's triggering it isn't as important as not being able to cope with the feelings. I just want to show how universal emotional struggles are and finding a way to deal with them that's healthy.
What do you go into an interview hoping for?
What I'm usually hoping for is for all of their walls to come down and for them to say the things out loud that they have always been or used to be too terrified to say out loud and that somebody listening will go, "Oh my god, I'm not the only one. Maybe life isn't so bad. Maybe there's hope."
One of the episodes in helping me confront the covert incest I experienced was a guest named Lia McCord. She said, "It's okay if you were sexually excited while you were being violated. I blamed myself for years for that and it wasn't until I was in therapy that I learned that the adult's responsibility is to know that that's not okay." I was so blown away by somebody being so generous with something so taboo.
So many people in the public eye are open about their struggles with mental illness. Where is the stigma still present?
The place where I become informed about it the most is by reading the surveys. If a family just wants everybody to be normal, generally that's the kind of family that's going to have a stigma about being gay or having depression. It tends to usually be in the very religious communities, in a lot of wealthy communities, and a lot of immigrant communities. And environments that were emotionally invalidating.
We are so emotionally in the dark ages in this country. That's something that really bums me out. One of the things that therapy and support groups help people achieve is the ability to navigate difficult things that adults have to do as opposed to running from it like a child, which I did for the first forty years of my life.
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