Since recovering from “classic depression”, Jessica Holmes vowed to continue the work of those who came before her, the pioneers who spoke publicly about their mental health battles. Their public validation of the celebrated comedian’s invisible illness was key to her recovery, and she has since joined their ranks as a brave and fierce voice in the mental health community.
She recently shared her personal mental health journey with us, from diagnosis to recovery and beyond, and we’re reposting her inspirational story in celebration of Mental Health Week.
If you’ve seen me air-guitaring in a Celine Dion wig or fiercely channeling Liza Minelli or Nikki Minaj, you might think: “I can’t imagine her being depressed.” But I’m actually a repeat member of that club.
I experienced postpartum depression after the birth of my second child, then run-of-the-mill-garden-variety depression later on. I hid it well, taking the stage to shake my tail-feathers for an hour here and there, then retreating home to my basement sofa where I’d spend the next three days in zombie-like catatonia, paying for the exertion. But I’m not here to talk about the depression. I’m here to talk about the moment I felt it was ok to seek help.
When my therapist diagnosed me with “yup, classic depression” as though sinking a three-point-basket, I thought of Brooke Shields, Clara Hughes, Marie Osmond, and the others who were pioneers in speaking publicly about their depression, and I realized with relief “right, this is something people go through. This is a real thing, and not just a case of me randomly being broken for two years.”
You do not know how hard it is to get some people to believe depression is an actual medical illness. One person reacted to my news with “depression, huh? What, did the tooth fairy give you that diagnosis?” I felt like I might as well have been wearing a tinfoil hat. To feel believed when you have an invisible illness is part of the battle, and when major companies address mental health it does a world of good. The Bell Let’s Talk (BLT) campaign started a new conversation in 2010, giving people the platform and sense of safety and entitlement to speak up and seek help.
When I recovered, I felt responsible to continue that validation. I went all in, writing the book Depression The Comedy: A Tale of Perseverance. Depression, of course, isn’t funny, but I felt there had to be a place for those who wanted to learn about the journey in a lighthearted way that wouldn’t trigger further sadness.
I asked Speakers’ Spotlight to add a new keynote to my repertoire: Comedy with a deeper message about understanding mental health. I started delivering that presentation two years ago (still complete with celebrity impressions and a sing-along ’cause hey, you catch more flies with honey), and I’m really encouraged by all the companies seeking empathy and understanding among their employees, creating a safer environment where people feel free to seek help if they need it. People want to hear about mental health. They want to understand its causes and treatments, to know how to help a friend who is suffering, and in many cases how to help themselves.
Each person speaks up for their own reason: to feel empowered, to stop hiding their pain, in celebration of feeling less like an invisible elephant is crushing them, to ask for help. Personally, I speak up to validate others, but also to end the judgement of the “can’t you just be grateful?” crowd. I promise you, we’re just as confused as you are!! I could see my able body, my opportunities, and creature comforts, but I saw them as though looking through a photographic lens. What I was experiencing was pain. On top of that, I was embarrassed by my inability to take any kind of action to improve my situation, and ashamed that I couldn’t just pull myself up by the bootstraps. So, I will continue to speak up until everyone understands it’s not an attitude problem, it’s a mental illness.
And there are still a LOT of misconceptions to clear up. For example, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is real, while “Blue Monday” is not (retailers named it the saddest day of the year but really it’s just making sure we still know how to use our credit cards post-holiday debt).
We are still trying to understand the rising rates of depression among youth so when I look at campaigns like BLT (that acronym makes me hungry!), I don’t just see it impacting the first wave of people, I see a ripple effect of a more empathetic population, of future generations who don’t only talk about mental illness in hushed tones like they’re trying to hide the fact that Uncle Murray keeps drinking the after-shave.
The same way companies discovered installing a gym lowered insurance rates and boosted employee engagement, investing in mental health creates a healthier population in the long run, a population that pays it forward. I was touched last year when basketball star DeMar DeRozan spoke up about his struggle with depression to help others. I’m encouraged by how many companies are addressing mental health, by the tireless team at Kids Help Phone working to meet the challenge of rising depression rates in young adults, and by each person who uses social media to validate the struggles of others. We are rising in consciousness together.
Well, I’m gonna wrap this up cause I have to take the dog out (part of my ongoing recovery is jogging her every day. Different strokes for different folks!). The biggest lesson I learned from this struggle is empathy. I judge less. If I looked like the life of the party but was hurting that much on the inside, then how many other people must be burying their trauma, continuing on as though nothing was wrong? Needless to say, I honk less at bad drivers. You never know who is in pain.
When I was diagnosed, what I wanted more than anything was to have someone say “I’m sorry, that must be hard.” So to everyone who speaks up, thank you for acknowledging the millions of people who struggle every day, for helping reduce stigma, and encouraging people to seek help without shame.
Beloved comedian Jessica Holmes has been a perennial favourite on Royal Canadian Air Farce for 15 years, and has brought the house down opening for giants such as Ellen DeGeneres, Russell Peters, Jerry Seinfeld, and Oprah Winfrey.
Behind the laughter though, Jessica — like millions of Canadians — struggled with depression. Hoping to help end the stigma around mental health issues, she openly shares her personal stories with the humour she’s known for, bringing light — and laughter — to what can often be a dark topic.
Interested in learning more about Jessica and what she can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].