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‘Improv is a safe space’: Laughs help treat mental health issues

HALIFAX – They say laughter can often be the best medicine and now a pilot program using improvisation games is underway in Halifax to help people with mental health issues.

The improv classes are organized by Make ’em Ups Improv Company as part of their mental health initiative.

For the past few Sundays, a group of about seven people has been gathering for two hours to play improv games.

The participants deal with conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.

Kat Taylor, 29, has generalized anxiety disorder and uses the weekly improv sessions to help her cope.

“My anxiety manifests itself in a lot of physical ways,” she said.

“I tend to experience extreme nausea, muscle tension and headaches as well as breaking into hives.”

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Taylor, who has always been a fan of comedy and improv, said that performing often helps her anxiety dissipate.

“Performing is a chance to get to experience my anxiety in a really safe and comfortable way, to build up a tolerance to it and allow me to develop coping mechanisms in a safe environment,” she said.

“It’s done amazing things for my self confidence.”

The games allow the participants, who range in age from their 20s to 50s, to be spontaneous, creative and work as a team.

They ask the group to act on their impulses, problem solve and try new experiences.

It can sometimes result in outlandish ideas but instructor Brian MacQuarrie says that it’s important to allow participants to express themselves creatively.

MacQuarrie credits improv for helping him overcome anxiety and depression.

“One thing is you’re never wrong in improv, which is nice because most people who suffer from mental health issues think ‘Ugh, I can’t do this right’. But in improv, you’re doing everything right. You can do no wrong,” he said.

“When [dealing with] things like mental health, I find people become isolationists. They close themselves off,” he said.
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“With improv, one of the basic things you do immediately out of the gate is you make friends, you are socializing. I like to look at improv as going to the gym with your brain.”

MacQuarrie said that it is fulfilling as a teacher to watch his students improve. “I’m not saying that improv is a cure-all, in no way, shape or form am I saying that. But in this class, people were getting self-respect and dignity and I don’t think you can put a price on those things for those individuals.”

The weekly classes have been beneficial for Randy Henderson, who suffers from social anxiety.

He said he usually avoids groups of people and social situations, but improv has changed his way of thinking.

“It’s a place where you can be spontaneous and not [plan] what I’m going to say so I don’t look bad. You can just be in the moment and trying something out,” he said.

“Improv is a safe space. There are moments of freedom and moments of when I can let go.”

Make ’em Ups Artistic Director Owen Stanford said that improv can be therapeutic.

“It makes us all feel good anyway. Why not use this power of feeling good and share it with those that might need it more than others?”

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“Improv helps with committing to our own ideas not just others, saying yes in situations where we might not feel comfortable,” he said.

The pilot program is free to participants and wraps up this Sunday. However, Stanford said that the organization is working out details for a similar program in the new year.

As for Taylor, she said that the classes have been life-changing: now she’s a performer in a Make ’em Ups ensemble.

“I just love doing this. It’s made me far happier than I ever would have imagined.”