Extraordinary People

Meet the comedian turning mental health issues into humour to ‘cope with the darkest moments’

Juliette Burton has been diagnosed with 13 different mental illnesses

They say laughter is the best medicine, and one comedian is handing out large doses of it.

Enter Juliette Burton, centre stage.

With an eating disorder that left her near death’s door and fighting for recovery after being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, she has visited the darkest recesses of her mind.

Now, Juliette uses those experiences as inspiration for her comedy, calling on her life story to connect others, destigmatise mental health issues, and, most importantly, make us laugh.

Speaking exclusively to Uspire, Juliette spoke about her personal journey and revealed just how she is able to transfer those tales into accessible humour for her audiences.

Juliette said: “At 14, I was diagnosed with anorexia. In reality, anorexia had been a way of coping with other undiagnosed conditions underlying.

“Looking back, I definitely had been struggling with compulsive overeating, anxiety disorder, depression and OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder] from ages 7 to 11, but they hadn’t been identified or treated. Anorexia was the first condition I received treatment for.

“In my teens, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on all sorts of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. At 15, I was hospitalised for it and sectioned under the Mental Health Act by 17-years-old as I was a month away from dying of starvation.”

As Juliette’s 18th birthday rolled around, she was on a psychiatric ward enduring psychotic hallucinations, audible and visual, while sectioned due to her low body weight and stress.

She continued: “Aged 19, I went from a size 4 to a size 20 (UK sizes) due to compulsive overeating disorder. I was suicidal at this time. In my 20s, I struggled with bulimia. In my 30s, I was diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder and cPTSD [complex post-traumatic stress disorder], which I see as the roots of the tree of all my other various mental illnesses.

“I’ve been in therapy for 20 years and I’ve experienced both inpatient and outpatient treatment, NHS and private. I’ve so far been diagnosed with 13 mental illnesses. Living with them is a constant opportunity to learn.”

Having always loved comedy, Juliette used her innate passion as a cathartic way to express herself and describes it as “a life raft” during her darkest times.

Despite hospitalisations preventing Juliette from reaching her full academic potential, she ended up studying journalism without any A-levels. This led to work in magazines and a stint for BBC radio, before she decided to try acting.

She continued: “The acting led to voiceover work, which led to more acting work, which led to me writing my own parts because as a woman the only roles I was being given were as sex objects or love interests. And writing eventually led me to comedy.

“I’ve since realised it’s the passion I always wanted to dedicate my life to. It is a way of coping with the darkest moments, if you can find some way to laugh at yourself or what you’re going through, it’s a way to find perspective and strength and power.

“Laughter breaks down barriers and increases understanding. It’s a way of levelling the playing field. Comedy is a tension-breaker and my life has been incredibly tense.”

While writing about serious issues and spinning them in a fun, light-hearted way sounds like a complex task where Juliette might be at risk of offending people, she says she relishes the hard work and effort to accomplish the challenge.

She explained: “I make sure every joke I write, every set I build, every show I perform and every sketch I might perform follows some rules.

“Firstly, is it from an informed perspective and am I informed about what it is I am joking about? Secondly, am I willing to be held accountable for what I’ve said, for example, if someone showed me a transcript of the words would I be willing to stand by them? Thirdly, who am I belittling in the joke and am I okay with who or what it is I am making fun of? Last but not least, what is my intention – intention is everything, and if my intention is a positive one then I’m probably on the right path?”

Juliette believes that comedy is a great way to tackle stigma head on, not only by sharing her stories but using ignorant comments (often from audience members) to steer material.

She said: “If someone says something that has the stench of ignorance, I can build it into a set in the future knowing there are people in the audience who might have had similar things said to them and will laugh in recognition and/or there might be people in the audience who have held the same ignorant viewpoint up until this moment so may laugh now in a more enlightened and self-aware position. Comedy is powerful. I’m utterly in love with the way it can change our point of view.”

Juliette says her main objective is to break down the binary view of mental health, in that we are either well or we are ill, when in fact many of us live on the tightrope of recovery.

She believes that being able to talk about this openly in her shows and her writing, helps her tackle the misconceptions she encounters.

Juliette said: “We all have mental health just like we all have physical health. Some of us might have a physical illness we recover from completely and never struggle with again, some of us might have a physical illness that lasts longer or recurs and needs more varied treatment, just like mental illness. Some of us might have a physical illness we have to learn to live with and manage – well or badly – for the rest of our lives.

“For me, some of my conditions I haven’t had to deal with for many years but during 2020 they’ve resurfaced (OCD, agoraphobia, paranoia) and some I’ve lived with daily for most of my life (anxiety, depression, all my eating disorders, cPTSD).”

Juliette says committing to healthy coping mechanisms is a huge driver in her recovery, in particular, curating a career that supports talking openly about mental health, ongoing therapy, mindfulness, exercise, and creative expression such as painting, modelling clay, or writing.

She also believes in being held accountable and has paired up with an ‘accountability buddy’ to regularly check-in with each other to discuss how they are doing and how they are coping.

When asked her advice for anyone who might be struggling now, Juliette gave an honest account to be prepared that life is tough and not always a bed of roses, but accepting this is crucial.

Juliette said: “You might doubt yourself, you might feel utterly alone, you might feel like no one understands your perspective and you’re isolated and don’t even know the language you’re meant to use to communicate the enormity of what you’re feeling to anyone who’ll even bother to listen. Some people might tell you it gets better. That’s not what I’ve discovered.

“My life has got DIFFERENT. You’ll have highs that you right now can’t even imagine. And they’ll be incredible highs worth sticking around for. You will also have lows, but you’ll learn that those lows are worth experiencing because they make the highs even more bright.

“Life is an adventure. Adventures are about the variety on the journey. Everything you’re experiencing now, how you see yourself, is a part of what will inform who you are in the future. Who you are now is important and your feelings are valid.

“Feel your feelings but know that feelings aren’t reality. My advice? Keep going. Put in practical action to help yourself, sooner, now, however hard it is take action.

“Whether that’s doing kind acts for those around you, writing daily gratitude lists, journaling, meditating, making a meal plan, talking to a trusted friend, exercise, write down affirmations and stick them on your bathroom mirror. Whatever you think might help you, do it. Don’t wait. Life is short and the effort is worth it.”

As well as continuing with her comedy, Juliette has high hopes we can live in a world where education around mental health is prioritised rather than seen as an extracurricular topic.

She concluded: “I provide workshops to help introduce people to the symptoms of the most common mental illnesses, practical support and resources to help them if they’re struggling, exercises to help assist listening and talking about mental health. We are ready and willing to offer this to whoever we can, but we need funding. And that isn’t easy to come by.

“I’d love to live in a world where mental illness was as accepted as physical illness and I believe there is a chance we are moving closer towards that. This year, 2020, has cracked the walnut of the misconception that mental health is a made-up, attention-seeking thing since we’ve all been struggling with a massive mental health challenge due to the pandemic.

“We’re all living through a societal trauma and times of great division. Funding mental health education for all would help prevent a greater cost to the economy in the long term.”

Juliette added: “Mental health is a great equaliser – it doesn’t matter what gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality you are, it doesn’t even matter what your political ideology is, whether you’re physically disabled or body normative or how much money you have in your bank account. If you are a human you have mental health.”

For more information, click here: Juliette Burton.

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