Mentally Ill on the Mic: How Paul Gilmartin Brings Us All Together

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The stand-up comedian turned podcaster has racked up more than one million downloads in just a year with his special formula for self-help.

The Mental Illness Happy Hour

If you've ever found yourself wandering the self-help section of a bookstore you might have thought the area to be a bit deserted and vacant, perhaps ominous. The stares you can receive from passersby are enough to keep most away. But nowadays those aisle-less self-help sections of sites like Amazon and iTunes are flooded with the curious and often desperate clicks of those yearning for any sort of help and release from the defeatist voices inside their heads. Depression, anxiety, negative thoughts, self-loathing -- the issue of mental health is an immense presence in the lives of nearly everyone: If it's not you then it's someone you're close to. Where are we to turn when that feeling comes crushing down on our shoulders?

The podcast. They're easy to produce and promote, and can defy the usual rules and regulations of television and radio by splitting from larger corporations. And, whether they make us shout in laughter, cry, feel, or perhaps get angry, the podcast is an engaging medium that is in itself a lifesaver, especially for those of us seeking mental help.

With over one million downloads in just a year's time, one podcast stands out among the rest, having been praised by its listeners all over the world for the ability to act as therapy by making us feel as if we are a part of something larger. Comedian Paul Gilmartin's show -- The Mental Illness Happy Hour -- has been making us see that we are not alone with our melancholy thoughts and insecure states of mind.

Paul Gilmartin knew that his own struggles with addiction and clinically diagnosed depression would serve as the ideal catalysts for him to deliver a truly unique show.

According to the comic and host, everyone hurts, even if just a little. Over the past year the former TBS's Dinner And A Movie host/comedian has found himself in an unexpected niche in the ever-widening podcast industry. Instead of following along the path of his comedy peers he has managed to etch his own in the realm of self-help. The decision to do a show was one that took a long while for fear of finding himself in the already lengthy line of comedy podcasts. "I knew I didn't want it listed under comedy," Gilmartin said. "So I thought the closest thing I suppose is self-help. But I was afraid that people would think I thought of myself as a guru, which I'm not."

When the idea of a self-help podcast came about Gilmartin knew that his own struggles with addiction and clinically diagnosed depression would serve as the ideal catalysts for him to deliver a truly unique show. "I never realized I had it [depression] until I was in my mid 30s. I just thought the rest of the world was really frustrating. But I do think I certainly have experience and insight to share that I'm as fucked up as the next person," Gilmartin said. "And I think in a lot of ways that's what makes the podcast work."

So with that thought in mind, he bought a couple of mics and called it The Mental Illness Happy Hour: an hour of honesty about all the battles in our heads. From medically diagnosed conditions to everyday compulsive negative thinking. Dissatisfaction, disconnection, inadequacy, and that vague sinking feeling that the world is passing us by. You give us an hour, we'll give you a hot ladle of awkward and icky.

"The self-help stuff on TV has always been that 'inside the doctors office' type stuff. I wanted the show to be a really fun waiting room that doesn't suck," Gilmartin said. "I think that's an undervalued resource in our lives -- other people that are as fucked up as us." Sure, it's a puzzling mixture when you initially approach the show: comedy and mental illness. But in looking deeper and deconstructing comedy altogether you might find that comedians are perhaps some of the best people to go to for one to feel safe and secure, especially to know you're not alone. "Mental illness is not a cut and dry thing," Gilmartin said. "It lives in the gray area. And that area, to me, has always been the stuff that fucks with you the most, but it fascinates me. So in many ways this podcast is just an extension of my curiosity of the gray areas in not only my life but other people's lives."

Gilmartin's inquisitiveness comes through largely during his conversations with guests (other comedians, artists, friends, and even doctors). The reasons why humans are the way they are is a question that has driven him during his entire  career. "I remember just being fascinated by why people did what they did," he said. "I realized at a young age that you don't just hit a certain age and you're okay. This never ends." Every one of the guests -- from fellow comedian/podcaster and best friend Jimmy Pardo to Adam Carolla to an ex-con he befriended years ago named Murph -- prove that insecurities last throughout life. It's the manifestations that are very different. Some lash out in anger, some ebb back and seclude themselves, and some use the act-as-if method, but they all demonstrate that no matter the amount of fame, money, or riches, nothing of substance can happen until you are happy with yourself. "It's not about what other people think of you. It's what you think of you," Gilmartin told me. "Why do we want to be rich and famous? Because we want people to love us. Well, you don't to be that for people to love you. You just have to stop trying to be the stuff that's not the authentic you. And that's what the podcast is I think. I show how I'm peeling away these layers that I think I need to in order to be loved. And by saying here's this layer, I do get love."

Vulnerability, emotions, connecting with others -- these are the foundations of ultimately being happy with yourself and living a life of peace with minimal issues from your mental health, according to Gilmartin. While he's aware there are different remedies for various people (Gilmartin admits to taking prescribed anti-depressants), he's a staunch believer of therapy and support groups acting as a first step. "You ease into them, and get to know people in there. All of a sudden you don't feel like a stranger, you feel a little more part of it," he said. He also praises vulnerability in overcoming issues. "If everybody in the room becomes vulnerable or at least enough of them, it's amazing what can happen. I probably say I love you to people five or six times a day," Gilmartin said. "I'm constantly on the phone with friends and people from support groups. It's become a part of my vocabulary now. If I feel positive about a person now, I tell them. I don't wait until they die in a hospital to tell them."

Having been diagnosed with depression many years ago and overcome alcohol and drug addiction, the comedian claims that ultimately his wife saved him. "In 2003, I was thinking about suicide probably every hour. And what made me want to do it even more was the fact that my life was good. I had a great job. I had a wife that loved me. Had financial success. And so my wife, very gently, suggested that I go see somebody. So I thought I should because something was wrong with me," Gilmartin said. "I came to find out that I had a drug and alcohol problem. I knew I was a heavy user but I didn't know that I had lost the ability to quit. So I began connecting."

If The Mental Illness Happy Hour proves one thing it is that we are not alone. From teenagers to adults, insecurities and mental issues affect us all. But by putting ourselves out there and finding help we are becoming more vulnerable and more open to the possibilities of living happily, authentically. It's only when we let our ego get the best of us that those insecurities inflate and take over. "I think the soul and the ego are always pointed in completely different directions," Gilmartin said. "And our society is ego-driven. We think we know everything. Generally there's a lot of arrogance and not a lot of responsibility."

Taking the first step to get help is a difficult one, but an essential one. "People think the feelings they have are from their situation and not a manifestation of what's going on inside of them," Gilmartin said. "Their soul needs that energy of connecting to somebody else in a way that is about the vulnerability and not about trying to impress one another."

"To me, there is no more intimate medium than podcasting," he added. "When people say the show is so real, I love it. It's what I was always trying to get to with my stand up but I never could because I could never feel safe enough in a comedy club to feel vulnerable. And vulnerability is the first step to connecting to other people. For me it was at least."

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Kyle Dowling is a writer based in New York City. His work has also appeared in PlayboyCOED Magazine, Psychology Tomorrow, and The Smoking Jacket, among others. 

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