Mental illness is a topic a lot of people are uncomfortable with. Though society is getting better at discussing illnesses like depression, anxiety, grief and others, we owe that in part to the entertainers who have bravely come forward to tell of their struggles. Among these you find comedians like Hannah Gadby and Adam Cayton-Holland.

Adam Cayton-Holland’s story is one of moving beyond grief and turning pain into power. He is returning to the Just for Laughs festival after six years away.

The reason for his hiatus is a sad one. Shortly after he played the festival in 2013, his sister died by suicide. Cayton-Holland was the one who discovered her body.

Following her death, he battled grief and depression and underwent therapy which helped him to cope. He eventually came out with a memoir of his struggles, titled Tragedy Plus Time: A Tragi-Comic Memoir. His show, Happy Place, is loosely adapted from that memoir.

I had the opportunity to speak with Cayton-Holland about his experience overcoming grief and his return to Just for Laughs. He was surprisingly cheerful on the phone given the tragedy he’s endured, saying he’s excited to come back and that he loves Montreal.

When I asked him for specifics, he talked about loving the food at Au Pied de Cochon and that he’s looking forward to eating at Joe Beef this time around. When I asked him whether he preferred New York bagels to Montreal bagels, he pointed out that being from Denver, Colorado, he doesn’t have a dog in this fight.

“I’ll take Montreal,” he laughed.

Pleasantries aside, I asked about the tragedy he endured.

“I came to Montreal in 2012, and I came back in 2013. I came home, and two days after that my little sister took her own life.”

I asked if she was ill and he said she was clearly so but that things only became clearer in hindsight, describing how looking at the timeline, the last two years of her life were characterised by mental illness that turned his sister’s brain in on itself.

I asked him if the grief and depression he endured as a result interfered with his ability to do comedy:

“Oh my god yeah. And I sort of stopped doing standup for a while. It was this odd thing where you know, for a comic from Denver, Colorado to be a New Face, it was a big deal, it was a big career moment, and then two days later your sister takes herself out. So it’s like all things you’ve been caring about in your career and comedy and Hollywood and then you’re just quickly reminded: oh none of that matters at ALL and I’m broken and my family’s broken. My friends and I sold our TV show, Those Who Can’t, which had three seasons to TruTV right around that time so we had to make a pilot and I was sort of doing the best I could but I had a couple of breakdowns and I had to have aggressive therapy and it is as awful as you can imagine. It was THAT awful.”

I know some people, when dealing with grief, tend to work harder to try and forget, so I asked Cayton-Holland if this was the case with him. He said that he tried, but everything happened seven years ago and he hasn’t been talking about it in standup on stage.

Writing the book, then, became his way of mourning. Now that he put the book out, he wants to talk about it in a one-man show format, describing said show as:

“Not standup per se, a little more serious.”


For Cayton-Holland, writing was therapeutic and cathartic, helping him process what he was going through, though he went into the writing process with no hyperbole in mind.

“I’d sit at my laptop and sob, but it helped me. There was a normalization of it. I don’t want this to be a dirty secret. I don’t want this to be something I’m ashamed of. I’m not ashamed of her, not ashamed of what she did. I just feel like mental illness took my little sister out and so writing about it helped me kinda come around and get through the normal feelings of grief and anger and shame and guilt. Writing really helped me with that.”

When he mentioned sobbing, I asked if he wanted to fight the stigma about men crying. In response Cayton-Holland pointed out that the stigma is a little dated and feels like there’s something wrong with a man who can’t cry.

“I lost my little sister. You expect me not to cry?”

When I asked about the response to his memoir, he said it’s been amazing:

“If anything it’s shown me how prevalent this stuff is: mental illness, depression, suicide. I cannot tell you the amount of messages I get all the time, sometimes it’s really big overshare. I put myself out there so people relate. I wrote honestly and tried to normalize it and a lot of people are like ‘Thank you because my family went through something similar’ and just share- It’s the power of story, and people seem to really respond to that.”

He said that in some ways the experience made him less lonely, in some ways it made him more so. He says that telling his story has helped nip any shame and awkwardness in the bud.

“It’s 2019 and we still whisper the word ‘suicide’. I’m comfortable with it but I understand the stigma around it.”

His show is called Happy Place because the therapy he underwent to overcome his grief involved retreating to a happy place in his mind when a traumatic memory – in this case finding his sister’s body – became too intense. The show is based on excerpts from his memoir, but Cayton-Holland says you can expect tons of new material as well.

Happy Place is on at Just for Laughs from July 23-25. Check it out.

Wednesday April 4, 2012. Syntagma Square in Athens, Greece is bustling at its habitual frantic pace. A 77 year old man stands solemnly in front of the Greek parliament, holding a handgun. Then, he shoots himself in the head, putting an end to his life, and leaving behind a note: An outline of what had lead to the unfolding of this tragic end.

“I have no other way to react apart from finding a dignified end before I start sifting through garbage for food,” he has written on the note.  His last wish was “to leave no debts to his children.”

The fact that the 77-year-old pensioner shot himself in front of the Greek parliament wasn’t a coincidence, it was a symbolic act. It could even be considered a “terrorist” act if we employ the same logic as the mainstream Canadian media has in the wake of the Ottawa shooting.

In August 2001, economic punishment claimed yet another life. Kimberly Rogers, a 40 year-old, 8 month pregnant Ontarian, died while she was under house arrest for welfare fraud, because of the restraints that the Ontario social services had imposed on her, under the directives of the Mike Harris government and the guidelines of the Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty.

Ms. Rogers only had a total of 18$ to spend on common necessities such as rent, food and hydro per month.

Demonstration 20141031

Unfortunately, these are not isolated cases. The correlation between the imposition of austerity measures that produce economic hardship on the most impoverished sections of society and the increase in suicide rates has been verified by several studies since the start of the economic recession in 2008. Most recently, a British conducted study claimed that austerity measures caused over 10,000 deaths since the start of the economic crisis. This just goes to prove that there is an undeniable link between economic conditions and mental health.

In the past few weeks, many have qualified the Ottawa shooting, a suicidal attempt in many ways, as an “act of terrorism,” and yet, somehow, the events just described above do not qualify as terrorist.

Wasn’t the shooting in front of the Greek parliament in itself an act of terrorism, for did it not instill terror? In the past few weeks many have come out stating the obvious: Michael Zehaf Bibeau had mental health issues. This being said, neither the mainstream media nor politicians have asked the real question that requires an answer: what was the cause of his mental health issues?

First and foremost, whereas the tragic crime of Michael Zehaf Bibeau can be qualified as terrorism, the desperate act of a 77 year-old pensioner in Greece can’t. The reason is simple, the former’s motive was to push for a political agenda, while the latter aimed to discredit the dominant political discourse.

The only difference I see is that Zehaf Bibeau committed a murder, which is a crime and is inexcusable. But both events, in terms of symbolic importance, are the same. They are both attacks on the political consciousness. But most importantly, they are both the manifestations of a profound sickness within the societies in which they took place.

Durkheim1

At the end of the nineteenth century, amid profound social transformation unleashed by the industrial revolution, the forefather of modern sociology Émile Durkheim established the link—after an extensive study of suicide in France and Germany—between the changing economic sphere, economic marginalization, the weakening of social links and a sharp rise in suicide rates. The idea that dismal economic situations, extreme poverty and alienation in the workplace, which produced massive marginalization and a rise in mental health issues, was continued during the second half of the twentieth century by Michel Foucault, who wrote Madness and Civilization: A history of insanity.  In his book, Foucault elaborated that “folie” or mental health issues transformed in advanced capitalism. Further, Gilles Deleuze underlined in his works the correlation between some capitalist activities and schizophrenia.

Despite being very straightforward, the fact that our social environment, the structure within which we work and live, and the economic system that rules over our daily lives have very direct and real influences over our mental well-being has been completely shut out of the picture. Mental illness is certainly a fact. But exclusion, marginalization, and the social context in which both Martin Rouleau and Michael Zehaf Bibeau lived certainly had an impact on them, and thus on their actions. Once again mental health is used here an exit strategy. “He had mental health issues,” and that’s all there is to it!

Unfortunately this does not cut it, because both individuals seemed to “blend-in” perfectly with society—Michael Zehaf Bibeau was a exemplar student during his high school year. So, what brought about this tragic turn of events?

In Zehaf Bibeau’s case, his obvious marginalization, economical hardship and difficulties of living a homeless life probably had a major influence on the young man and most certainly were factors that contributed largely to the deterioration of his mental health. Unfortunately, no importance whatsoever is given to those aspects that might have been the cause of his subsequent radicalization. The only thing the media has taken from the Zehaf Bibeau’s story is that he was a Muslim.

Parliament_building

How many homeless Canadians are wandering the streets, today? How many Canadian families are terrorized by the fact that they won’t make ends meet?

More than 800,000 Canadians rely on Food Banks to have some sort of “proper” nourishment. A staggering amount of Canadians live very difficult precarious economic situations. While the plight of Canada’s most diminished has been soaring within the past decade, austerity measures have been applied across the board. Profound cuts to food banks and community services have been applied by various levels of government to “balance the budget.” Provincial and federal governments have ripped apart the Canadian mental health system, and thousands of Canadians are in desperate need of affordable housing, and social housing. Some have said during the past weeks, that Canada got a taste of its own medicine: “Canada declared war and must now deal with the consequences.”

But once again that is a form of criticism, which fits with the dominant political discourse that wants us not to question the austerity agenda. What if Zehaf Bibeau was radicalized not by ISIS or some video, with “cool” special effects on the Internet, but by the economical repression he lived on a daily basis?

Terror breeds terror, and so does austerity, in more ways than one.

A luta continua.