The Darker Side of Comedy

Behind the Scenes Depression Masked by an On-Screen Smile

photo and quote about depression by Robin Williams before his suicide
Sometimes a hidden sadness can lurk behind the happiest of faces. Vera Anderson/Getty Images

A Smile on Screen Can Hide Depression Behind the Scene

Sometimes the people who are the best at bringing smiles to others' faces are actually suffering inside. It is well known that countless comedians over the years have struggled with addiction, depression, and other forms of mental illness. Just think of two of the funniest stars from Saturday Night Live: John Belushi and Chris Farley, whose lives ended too early because of their own battles with addiction.

Robin Williams is another comedian whose life ended in suicide. His outward joy and laughter was unable to outweigh his internal suffering.

The list goes on, including Jim Carrey, and Harrison Ford. Thankfully, some movies about depression have opened the public's eyes in recent years. What goes on behind closed doors, or lies behind a smile or laugh, is not always what we think.

Don't Forget the Funny People Who Aren't Famous

There are many people who happen to be exceptionally funny even if they are not comedians. Depression, addiction and other forms of mental illness do not discriminate and only affect the lives of celebrities. Though we frequently see the spotlight shining on the celebrities whose lives tragically end from overdoses or suicide, they are a small representation of the countless others who struggle in silence, often behind laughter and smiles.

Comedy and Depression - A Counter-Phobic Response

Dr. Deborah Serani is a clinical psychologist who has experienced depression herself and works with performers with mental illness.

She notes that comedy is a "counter-phobic" response to the tragic depression that many funny people experience. Behind the smile is someone who is coping with dark sadness.

While not all funny people are depressed, many more may be struggling than you realize. Think of funny people in your life: You never know what their experience might be within.

When Depression is Hidden

Obvious signs of depression include staying in bed all day, crying, and generally seeming sad. Depression, however, is not always obvious. Many people suffer with their depression in silence, often hiding behind smiles and laughter. Depression can cause people to withdraw and isolate themselves. Despite the pains of loneliness, depression can make a compelling case against truly connecting to others.

Depression can also be masked by addiction. Addiction is one way that many people use to cope with depression ("self medicating." Whether the addiction is a substance, food, work, or something else, it takes center stage in someone's life. The addiction may temporarily help someone feel that they are escaping depression, but the depression is always lurking in the background, and often by the addiction. 

Someone who is depressed may also seem angry and irritable, and may be written off as a jerk. This person may not even be aware that he is depressed, but is suffering on some level.

The bottom line is to never judge a person by appearances. Sometimes those who seem to be the least likely candidates for depression are the ones suffering in silence.

Depression is Not a Laughing Matter

It has been said that the strongest risk factor for suicide is depression, with fifteen percent of lives touched by clinical depression ending in suicide.

While everyone has experienced a sad mood or perhaps even have claimed to feel "depressed" at times, clinical depression is a chronic illness that not only impacts one's mood, but one's thoughts and physiology as well.

It is extremely difficult to understand the depths of pain of one who experiences severe depression without going through it directly or indirectly through a close connection with someone who has depression. Those who have not experienced depression themselves may ask, How can a person be depressed for no reason? The important point if you have asked that question is that depression is not simply a reaction to a bad situation.

Rather, it is an illness marked by biochemical changes in the brain unrelated to whether or not a person's life situation is good or bad. Someone coping with depression can no more easily "laugh it off" or "change their attitude" than someone with diabetes can alter their blood sugar levels by changing their attitude.

What to do if You Suspect a Loved One May be Facing Depression in Silence?

If you suspect that a loved one may be depressed, stay close to them. Offer empathy, as this may help someone feel more comfortable to divulge more information about his or her experience. As much as possible, do not act like you are rushed, and give your loved one time to begin talking. It may take awhile, and she may slowly test the waters to determine if you are really interested in hearing what she has to say. Do not offer platitudes such as "it will get better" (how do you know it will?). Instead, let her know that you want to understand. Try to listen more than speak.

It is crucial to remain non-judgmental, even if the thoughts and feelings your loved one shares with you make you feel uncomfortable. Someone who is depressed typically already judges themselves harshly, and will not open up to someone who is judgmental. Remain genuinely curious, caring and patient. Be a good listener, and help your loved one shed the destructive mask that depression so frequently has people put on.

Treating Depression

Thankfully, there are effective treatments for depression which work for many people. Psychotropic medications can help restore biochemical imbalances in the brain, and psychotherapy can help people cope with depression and sometimes overcome it completely.

Keep in mind that if your loved one has begun treatment for depression, it is not a quick fix. Medications can take six to eight weeks to "kick in" and therapy often requires many visits. As a friend the best thing you can do is let your loved one know that you are not going away. You will stick by her side no matter how long it takes for her to work through her depression and begin to live fully again.

Depression Resources

As noted earlier, suicide is far too common among people with depression. Take time to learn about the warning signs of suicide as some of these can be fairly subtle.

If you are concerned, don't try to go it alone, and don't wait. You can begin by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a confidential free hotline that is run by trained and skilled crisis counselors and operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It is not only for people who are considering suicide, but is available to anyone who is in crisis of any kind, ranging from economic problems to loneliness


Serani, D. (2011). Living with depression: Why biology and biography matter along the path to healing. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Tohid, H. Robin Williams’ Suicide: A Case Study. Trends in Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. 2016. 38(3):178-182.

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