Tag Archives: saved

‘Drama saved my life’: how performing can help mental health problems

Kerry Shadbolt feared for her life as she approached the end of two years of drama therapy, provided by the NHS to help her manage her emotionally unstable personality disorder. Shadbolt, 47, had formed close friendships within her group and it was a place where she felt she could be herself. It was also sometimes the only thing she could leave her house for.

She says: “When you get therapy it’s always time limited. When you get to the end of the prescribed period, that’s it. Off you go. There’s no discussion or follow on. There’s no safety net and you get left to fend for yourself.”

It was a massive relief, then, when Gerald Maiello, the drama therapist she had been working with, put up a poster asking for interest in forming a theatre company that would mean the group could keep meeting and performing. And so May Contain Nuts was born.

The group meets every Tuesday at the Hertfordshire partnership NHS foundation trust in Watford, and improvises scenes that explore topics such as self-harm and suicide, inspired by members’ real-life experiences. It also puts on performances for audiences – including staff at the trust and university students studying psychology and drama therapy – to raise awareness of mental health problems and how they can affect people.

May Contain Nuts


Performances aim to highlight the need for healthcare professionals to see people above and beyond a mental health diagnosis. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

A cross-party inquiry co-chaired by former arts ministers Alan Howarth and Ed Vaizey last year concluded that the arts can keep people well, aid recovery from illness, help people live longer, have better lives and save money in health and social care services. Despite this, they are still not used enough in the NHS, according to Maiello, who works at the trust. “It’s wrong, because they can offer a lot,” he says.

Another benefit of the project is that it offers current and former mental health patients a lifeline when the help prescribed to them by the NHS stops. The consequences of leaving people with mental health problems to drift can be dire, as a report into mental health care by the parliamentary and health service ombudsman highlighted. The report cited one case where an individual who had bipolar disorder and a personality disorder took their life after being discharged from a community team.

Shadbolt says May Contain Nuts saved her life. “When I’m suicidal, just knowing that these guys are rooting for me is what gets me through,” she says. “These are the only people that understand and know where I’m coming from. I wouldn’t survive without them.”

Another member, Katie Allen-Smith, 34, who also lives with emotionally unstable personality disorder, says: “This group has been the difference between an ambulance being called for someone in time or not. I’ve been in touch with members of the group on Whatsapp or Messenger and they’ve contacted my husband and said ‘You need to go and get her’ when I couldn’t do anything.”

May Contain Nuts


Audiences have been moved to tears by the performances. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

As well as the peer support on offer, the group ieducates people on living with mental health issues. It puts on performances and then holds a workshop to discuss what the audience has just seen. Healthcare students find this particularly helpful as they can ask candid and probing questions that they might be afraid to in a clinical setting.

Kevin Smith, 56, who has post traumatic stress disorder and depression, says: “When we’ve done a performance, sometimes we take a bow and the audience stands there clapping. You think, ‘Wow. I’ve made an impression. I’m getting the message out there.’”

Audiences have been moved to tears by the sometimes difficult drama on display, especially seeing a character crumple under the weight of mental health problems. Students have said they’ve learned more in a couple of hours with the group than in two years of their course.

It’s this performance aspect that Maiello is most proud of. “Every performance is an achievement,” he says. He has noticed that the key themes the group explores are rejection, loss, abandonment and grief – which are at odds with going up on stage. “If you’ve experienced a lot of rejection, why go on stage to receive more?”

He adds that the performances aim to highlight the need for healthcare professionals to see people above and beyond a diagnosis. “If it enables them to see more than just a mental health diagnosis, then we’ve won the day.”

May Contain Nuts won in the mental health category, sponsored by the Guardian, at the UK Advancing Healthcare Awards for allied health professionals and healthcare scientists leading innovative healthcare practice.

  • In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Join the Healthcare Professionals Network to read more pieces like this. And follow us on Twitter (@GdnHealthcare) to keep up with the latest healthcare news and views

If you’re looking for a healthcare job or need to recruit staff, visit Guardian Jobs

‘Drama saved my life’: how performing can help mental health problems

Kerry Shadbolt feared for her life as she approached the end of two years of drama therapy, provided by the NHS to help her manage her emotionally unstable personality disorder. Shadbolt, 47, had formed close friendships within her group and it was a place where she felt she could be herself. It was also sometimes the only thing she could leave her house for.

She says: “When you get therapy it’s always time limited. When you get to the end of the prescribed period, that’s it. Off you go. There’s no discussion or follow on. There’s no safety net and you get left to fend for yourself.”

It was a massive relief, then, when Gerald Maiello, the drama therapist she had been working with, put up a poster asking for interest in forming a theatre company that would mean the group could keep meeting and performing. And so May Contain Nuts was born.

The group meets every Tuesday at the Hertfordshire partnership NHS foundation trust in Watford, and improvises scenes that explore topics such as self-harm and suicide, inspired by members’ real-life experiences. It also puts on performances for audiences – including staff at the trust and university students studying psychology and drama therapy – to raise awareness of mental health problems and how they can affect people.

May Contain Nuts


Performances aim to highlight the need for healthcare professionals to see people above and beyond a mental health diagnosis. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

A cross-party inquiry co-chaired by former arts ministers Alan Howarth and Ed Vaizey last year concluded that the arts can keep people well, aid recovery from illness, help people live longer, have better lives and save money in health and social care services. Despite this, they are still not used enough in the NHS, according to Maiello, who works at the trust. “It’s wrong, because they can offer a lot,” he says.

Another benefit of the project is that it offers current and former mental health patients a lifeline when the help prescribed to them by the NHS stops. The consequences of leaving people with mental health problems to drift can be dire, as a report into mental health care by the parliamentary and health service ombudsman highlighted. The report cited one case where an individual who had bipolar disorder and a personality disorder took their life after being discharged from a community team.

Shadbolt says May Contain Nuts saved her life. “When I’m suicidal, just knowing that these guys are rooting for me is what gets me through,” she says. “These are the only people that understand and know where I’m coming from. I wouldn’t survive without them.”

Another member, Katie Allen-Smith, 34, who also lives with emotionally unstable personality disorder, says: “This group has been the difference between an ambulance being called for someone in time or not. I’ve been in touch with members of the group on Whatsapp or Messenger and they’ve contacted my husband and said ‘You need to go and get her’ when I couldn’t do anything.”

May Contain Nuts


Audiences have been moved to tears by the performances. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi for the Guardian

As well as the peer support on offer, the group ieducates people on living with mental health issues. It puts on performances and then holds a workshop to discuss what the audience has just seen. Healthcare students find this particularly helpful as they can ask candid and probing questions that they might be afraid to in a clinical setting.

Kevin Smith, 56, who has post traumatic stress disorder and depression, says: “When we’ve done a performance, sometimes we take a bow and the audience stands there clapping. You think, ‘Wow. I’ve made an impression. I’m getting the message out there.’”

Audiences have been moved to tears by the sometimes difficult drama on display, especially seeing a character crumple under the weight of mental health problems. Students have said they’ve learned more in a couple of hours with the group than in two years of their course.

It’s this performance aspect that Maiello is most proud of. “Every performance is an achievement,” he says. He has noticed that the key themes the group explores are rejection, loss, abandonment and grief – which are at odds with going up on stage. “If you’ve experienced a lot of rejection, why go on stage to receive more?”

He adds that the performances aim to highlight the need for healthcare professionals to see people above and beyond a diagnosis. “If it enables them to see more than just a mental health diagnosis, then we’ve won the day.”

May Contain Nuts won in the mental health category, sponsored by the Guardian, at the UK Advancing Healthcare Awards for allied health professionals and healthcare scientists leading innovative healthcare practice.

  • In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

Join the Healthcare Professionals Network to read more pieces like this. And follow us on Twitter (@GdnHealthcare) to keep up with the latest healthcare news and views

If you’re looking for a healthcare job or need to recruit staff, visit Guardian Jobs

‘She changed my world’: how a teacher saved me after my mum died

My world was rocked at the age of 12 – but my extraordinary English teacher helped me through it. Now we’re reconnecting

Chris Young in Largs, Scotland, as part of his Walk a Mile in My Shoes journey.


Chris Young in Largs, Scotland, as part of his Walk a Mile in My Shoes journey, which aims to tackle the stigmas surrounding mental health. Photograph: Ella Young

I was 12 years old, and my mum had just died from cancer. It was horrific to watch that happen to someone. My dad had an alcohol problem that mum had been managing all these years – suddenly he had a good reason to drink, and no one to stop him any more. He hit the bottle hard.

I went from being quite a high achieving student to being in the bottom quarter for English. But among all this, there was my English teacher, Miss Ward, who was so supportive. She wasn’t trained in mental health: she just saw someone who was distressed and unhappy, but who also had potential. She changed my world.

She listened to me and engaged with me. She had me talking in front of the English class, and was always chasing me to write something for the school magazine. She’d always find the good in the stuff I wrote.

I started the #FindMissWard campaign after going to a class reunion. Nobody knew what had happened to her. I’d just written a book about my journey on foot around the edge of the UK to highlight the stigmas surrounding mental health – and I thought it would be fantastic if she came to the launch. I think about 1.3 million people saw the tweet asking for help finding her, and tens of thousands of people retweeted and engaged with it.

Chris Young (@walkamileuk)

#FindMissWard

Dear, lovely people of Twitter – Miss Ward HAS BEEN FOUND!!

Thanks to social media – a load of emails and an old school style letter we’ve exchanged some emails and we’ll be meeting up soon

She wishes to remain anonymous & I’ll respect that

Thank you Twitter!!

February 1, 2018

The lovely thing was that so many people came out and said they had a “Miss Ward” too. One person on Twitter sent a message about their own Miss Ward and about five tweets later this woman said, “Here I am!”. They were reunited almost instantly – it was astonishing. I’m certain there’ll be lots of people who have never got round to looking for the teacher who made a lasting impact on their lives, but maybe wish they had.

When I think back, it took a long while for the personal difficulties after my mum died to really hit home. I fell to bits for a long time. I left school with almost no qualifications, but I had my O-level English and a few others. I ended up training to become a social worker because not many people had been there for me – and I wanted to be there for other people.

Later, in 2007, when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I became homeless after leaving my job. The experiences I had during that time made me feel it was important to challenge the stigmas surrounding mental health. By walking around the edge of the UK, I wanted to highlight how people with mental health problems feel on the edge of society. I was really pleased when I finally produced the book.

I’m not sure I would have had belief in my writing without Miss Ward. I think a lot of my other teachers at school were just a bit busy and didn’t see what was going on. It’s challenging to look after more than 30 pupils at a time, but somehow I came away from her classes feeling special.

We’re going to be meeting up in a couple of weeks. I just want to touch base and say thank you. I feel very lucky to have had her in my life.

Chris Young is founder of the Walk a Mile in My Shoes campaign, challenging stigma around mental health, and author of Walk a Mile: Tales of a Wandering Loon.

Follow us on Twitter via @GuardianTeach, like us on Facebook, and join the Guardian Teacher Network the latest articles direct to your inbox

Looking for a teaching job? Or perhaps you need to recruit school staff? Take a look at Guardian Jobs, the education specialist.

‘She changed my world’: how a teacher saved me after my mum died

My world was rocked at the age of 12 – but my extraordinary English teacher helped me through it. Now we’re reconnecting

Chris Young in Largs, Scotland, as part of his Walk a Mile in My Shoes journey.


Chris Young in Largs, Scotland, as part of his Walk a Mile in My Shoes journey, which aims to tackle the stigmas surrounding mental health. Photograph: Ella Young

I was 12 years old, and my mum had just died from cancer. It was horrific to watch that happen to someone. My dad had an alcohol problem that mum had been managing all these years – suddenly he had a good reason to drink, and no one to stop him any more. He hit the bottle hard.

I went from being quite a high achieving student to being in the bottom quarter for English. But among all this, there was my English teacher, Miss Ward, who was so supportive. She wasn’t trained in mental health: she just saw someone who was distressed and unhappy, but who also had potential. She changed my world.

She listened to me and engaged with me. She had me talking in front of the English class, and was always chasing me to write something for the school magazine. She’d always find the good in the stuff I wrote.

I started the #FindMissWard campaign after going to a class reunion. Nobody knew what had happened to her. I’d just written a book about my journey on foot around the edge of the UK to highlight the stigmas surrounding mental health – and I thought it would be fantastic if she came to the launch. I think about 1.3 million people saw the tweet asking for help finding her, and tens of thousands of people retweeted and engaged with it.

Chris Young (@walkamileuk)

#FindMissWard

Dear, lovely people of Twitter – Miss Ward HAS BEEN FOUND!!

Thanks to social media – a load of emails and an old school style letter we’ve exchanged some emails and we’ll be meeting up soon

She wishes to remain anonymous & I’ll respect that

Thank you Twitter!!

February 1, 2018

The lovely thing was that so many people came out and said they had a “Miss Ward” too. One person on Twitter sent a message about their own Miss Ward and about five tweets later this woman said, “Here I am!”. They were reunited almost instantly – it was astonishing. I’m certain there’ll be lots of people who have never got round to looking for the teacher who made a lasting impact on their lives, but maybe wish they had.

When I think back, it took a long while for the personal difficulties after my mum died to really hit home. I fell to bits for a long time. I left school with almost no qualifications, but I had my O-level English and a few others. I ended up training to become a social worker because not many people had been there for me – and I wanted to be there for other people.

Later, in 2007, when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I became homeless after leaving my job. The experiences I had during that time made me feel it was important to challenge the stigmas surrounding mental health. By walking around the edge of the UK, I wanted to highlight how people with mental health problems feel on the edge of society. I was really pleased when I finally produced the book.

I’m not sure I would have had belief in my writing without Miss Ward. I think a lot of my other teachers at school were just a bit busy and didn’t see what was going on. It’s challenging to look after more than 30 pupils at a time, but somehow I came away from her classes feeling special.

We’re going to be meeting up in a couple of weeks. I just want to touch base and say thank you. I feel very lucky to have had her in my life.

Chris Young is founder of the Walk a Mile in My Shoes campaign, challenging stigma around mental health, and author of Walk a Mile: Tales of a Wandering Loon.

Follow us on Twitter via @GuardianTeach, like us on Facebook, and join the Guardian Teacher Network the latest articles direct to your inbox

Looking for a teaching job? Or perhaps you need to recruit school staff? Take a look at Guardian Jobs, the education specialist.

‘She changed my world’: how a teacher saved me after my mum died

My world was rocked at the age of 12 – but my extraordinary English teacher helped me through it. Now we’re reconnecting

Chris Young in Largs, Scotland, as part of his Walk a Mile in My Shoes journey.


Chris Young in Largs, Scotland, as part of his Walk a Mile in My Shoes journey, which aims to tackle the stigmas surrounding mental health. Photograph: Ella Young

I was 12 years old, and my mum had just died from cancer. It was horrific to watch that happen to someone. My dad had an alcohol problem that mum had been managing all these years – suddenly he had a good reason to drink, and no one to stop him any more. He hit the bottle hard.

I went from being quite a high achieving student to being in the bottom quarter for English. But among all this, there was my English teacher, Miss Ward, who was so supportive. She wasn’t trained in mental health: she just saw someone who was distressed and unhappy, but who also had potential. She changed my world.

She listened to me and engaged with me. She had me talking in front of the English class, and was always chasing me to write something for the school magazine. She’d always find the good in the stuff I wrote.

I started the #FindMissWard campaign after going to a class reunion. Nobody knew what had happened to her. I’d just written a book about my journey on foot around the edge of the UK to highlight the stigmas surrounding mental health – and I thought it would be fantastic if she came to the launch. I think about 1.3 million people saw the tweet asking for help finding her, and tens of thousands of people retweeted and engaged with it.

Chris Young (@walkamileuk)

#FindMissWard

Dear, lovely people of Twitter – Miss Ward HAS BEEN FOUND!!

Thanks to social media – a load of emails and an old school style letter we’ve exchanged some emails and we’ll be meeting up soon

She wishes to remain anonymous & I’ll respect that

Thank you Twitter!!

February 1, 2018

The lovely thing was that so many people came out and said they had a “Miss Ward” too. One person on Twitter sent a message about their own Miss Ward and about five tweets later this woman said, “Here I am!”. They were reunited almost instantly – it was astonishing. I’m certain there’ll be lots of people who have never got round to looking for the teacher who made a lasting impact on their lives, but maybe wish they had.

When I think back, it took a long while for the personal difficulties after my mum died to really hit home. I fell to bits for a long time. I left school with almost no qualifications, but I had my O-level English and a few others. I ended up training to become a social worker because not many people had been there for me – and I wanted to be there for other people.

Later, in 2007, when I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I became homeless after leaving my job. The experiences I had during that time made me feel it was important to challenge the stigmas surrounding mental health. By walking around the edge of the UK, I wanted to highlight how people with mental health problems feel on the edge of society. I was really pleased when I finally produced the book.

I’m not sure I would have had belief in my writing without Miss Ward. I think a lot of my other teachers at school were just a bit busy and didn’t see what was going on. It’s challenging to look after more than 30 pupils at a time, but somehow I came away from her classes feeling special.

We’re going to be meeting up in a couple of weeks. I just want to touch base and say thank you. I feel very lucky to have had her in my life.

Chris Young is founder of the Walk a Mile in My Shoes campaign, challenging stigma around mental health, and author of Walk a Mile: Tales of a Wandering Loon.

Follow us on Twitter via @GuardianTeach, like us on Facebook, and join the Guardian Teacher Network the latest articles direct to your inbox

Looking for a teaching job? Or perhaps you need to recruit school staff? Take a look at Guardian Jobs, the education specialist.

‘Improv saved my life’: the comedy classes helping people with anxiety

“Your heart’s beating faster, you feel all these eyes on you, your body reacts with panic.” No, it’s not the discarded first line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, but Alex MacLaren’s description of how his students feel in work meetings, job interviews or even the pub. MacLaren teaches improvisational comedy at the Spontaneity Shop in London. At first, its courses attracted performers. Now, he estimates half his students are seeking help with anxiety or confidence.

It’s a trend noted by other improv teachers. In Manchester, Brainne Edge runs workshops as head of ComedySportz UK. In the past five years she’s seen the proportion of non-performers attending her courses rise to around 75%.

Sarah Farrell, 40, a graphic designer from Manchester and Ryan Kelly, 34, head of digital at a London creative agency, are two such students. Farrell was struggling with social anxiety and depression. Kelly was preparing to be best man at a friend’s wedding and was dreading the speech. They are both fans of the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? and imagined how the confidence needed to perform in an improv show could help them.


It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth

Ryan Kelly

“This was my first time speaking in front of 200-odd people,” says Kelly. “I didn’t relish the thought, so I thought I’d do something that would make me more confident.” Farrell already attended therapy sessions, which she finds useful, but felt she needed something more. “I was dealing with suicidal thoughts at the time, [so] maybe it was to distract myself from those long Saturday afternoons,” she says.

Going into the first session was intimidating (“I made my friend come with me – I wasn’t that brave!”), but Farrell found a welcoming environment.

Edge says: “We work hard to make it a comfortable space for people to try things and play and not worry about consequences.” MacLaren agrees: “We have to move people from mild social anxiety … into a playful and safe space.”

The teachers identify improv principles that could help to combat anxiety. First, they try to remove the fear of failure – teaching students that there is no “wrong” thing to say. “That is incredibly powerful because we are so used to trying to get the answer right,” says MacLaren.

Games help students get used to speaking their thoughts. “We did word disassociation games where you run around the room, point at things and say a word that it wasn’t,” says Kelly. “It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth.”

Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.


Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.

Farrell stopped overanalysing her thoughts so much. “You try to be less inside your head,” she says. “With anxiety and depression you’ve always got the running commentary about how bad and useless you are. Getting that to shut up and just talking is massively helpful for me.”

Once participants are comfortable with the possibility of messing up, they can start saying yes to new experiences – or in improv, “Yes, and”. It means embracing and building on character and scenario ideas others bring to the stage. In real life, it could mean accepting a social invitation or simply participating in a conversation. “You learn to say yes even when you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” says MacLaren.

Comedian Pippa Evans performs improv at the Comedy Store and with Josie Lawrence as part of Glenda J Collective. She also runs Improv Your Life, for non-performers. “I started doing it because I found improvisation really helped me,” she says. At work, she moved from being “an absolute control freak” to embracing her colleagues’ suggestions. It also helped her let go of the need to have a five-year life plan: “Improvisation allowed me to be open to a life where I don’t know what’s at the end of the tunnel and therefore appreciate what’s happening in the moment.”

Evans hopes to share these benefits and relates parts of her course to everyday situations. In her game “That reminds me”, a single word prompts a series of anecdotes, each inspired by the last, highlighting that every contribution keeps conversation flowing.

Most beginner courses don’t involve a performance, beyond working with classmates. But this can be too much. “We’ve had that a couple of times,” says Edge. “People have turned up and gone, ‘This is very big and loud, I’m not ready for this yet.’”

For Kelly, the course was fun and useful: “It made me a lot more relaxed; I actually enjoyed the [best man] speech.” He’s since noticed extra benefits. “I used to not enjoy big social things – working the room was very stressful,” he says. “I now look forward to those more. People aren’t judging you in real life. Don’t be afraid to put your thoughts into the conversation.”

After completing her course, Farrell signed up for the next level, which concluded in a performance. She’s since been back for more and would do it again. “You stop playing when you get older – everything becomes serious business – but it releases a lot of pressure,” she says. “I think [improv] saved my life. It opened me up to being a better version of myself.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

‘Improv saved my life’: the comedy classes helping people with anxiety

“Your heart’s beating faster, you feel all these eyes on you, your body reacts with panic.” No, it’s not the discarded first line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, but Alex MacLaren’s description of how his students feel in work meetings, job interviews or even the pub. MacLaren teaches improvisational comedy at the Spontaneity Shop in London. At first, its courses attracted performers. Now, he estimates half his students are seeking help with anxiety or confidence.

It’s a trend noted by other improv teachers. In Manchester, Brainne Edge runs workshops as head of ComedySportz UK. In the past five years she’s seen the proportion of non-performers attending her courses rise to around 75%.

Sarah Farrell, 40, a graphic designer from Manchester and Ryan Kelly, 34, head of digital at a London creative agency, are two such students. Farrell was struggling with social anxiety and depression. Kelly was preparing to be best man at a friend’s wedding and was dreading the speech. They are both fans of the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? and imagined how the confidence needed to perform in an improv show could help them.


It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth

Ryan Kelly

“This was my first time speaking in front of 200-odd people,” says Kelly. “I didn’t relish the thought, so I thought I’d do something that would make me more confident.” Farrell already attended therapy sessions, which she finds useful, but felt she needed something more. “I was dealing with suicidal thoughts at the time, [so] maybe it was to distract myself from those long Saturday afternoons,” she says.

Going into the first session was intimidating (“I made my friend come with me – I wasn’t that brave!”), but Farrell found a welcoming environment.

Edge says: “We work hard to make it a comfortable space for people to try things and play and not worry about consequences.” MacLaren agrees: “We have to move people from mild social anxiety … into a playful and safe space.”

The teachers identify improv principles that could help to combat anxiety. First, they try to remove the fear of failure – teaching students that there is no “wrong” thing to say. “That is incredibly powerful because we are so used to trying to get the answer right,” says MacLaren.

Games help students get used to speaking their thoughts. “We did word disassociation games where you run around the room, point at things and say a word that it wasn’t,” says Kelly. “It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth.”

Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.


Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.

Farrell stopped overanalysing her thoughts so much. “You try to be less inside your head,” she says. “With anxiety and depression you’ve always got the running commentary about how bad and useless you are. Getting that to shut up and just talking is massively helpful for me.”

Once participants are comfortable with the possibility of messing up, they can start saying yes to new experiences – or in improv, “Yes, and”. It means embracing and building on character and scenario ideas others bring to the stage. In real life, it could mean accepting a social invitation or simply participating in a conversation. “You learn to say yes even when you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” says MacLaren.

Comedian Pippa Evans performs improv at the Comedy Store and with Josie Lawrence as part of Glenda J Collective. She also runs Improv Your Life, for non-performers. “I started doing it because I found improvisation really helped me,” she says. At work, she moved from being “an absolute control freak” to embracing her colleagues’ suggestions. It also helped her let go of the need to have a five-year life plan: “Improvisation allowed me to be open to a life where I don’t know what’s at the end of the tunnel and therefore appreciate what’s happening in the moment.”

Evans hopes to share these benefits and relates parts of her course to everyday situations. In her game “That reminds me”, a single word prompts a series of anecdotes, each inspired by the last, highlighting that every contribution keeps conversation flowing.

Most beginner courses don’t involve a performance, beyond working with classmates. But this can be too much. “We’ve had that a couple of times,” says Edge. “People have turned up and gone, ‘This is very big and loud, I’m not ready for this yet.’”

For Kelly, the course was fun and useful: “It made me a lot more relaxed; I actually enjoyed the [best man] speech.” He’s since noticed extra benefits. “I used to not enjoy big social things – working the room was very stressful,” he says. “I now look forward to those more. People aren’t judging you in real life. Don’t be afraid to put your thoughts into the conversation.”

After completing her course, Farrell signed up for the next level, which concluded in a performance. She’s since been back for more and would do it again. “You stop playing when you get older – everything becomes serious business – but it releases a lot of pressure,” she says. “I think [improv] saved my life. It opened me up to being a better version of myself.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

‘Improv saved my life’: the comedy classes helping people with anxiety

“Your heart’s beating faster, you feel all these eyes on you, your body reacts with panic.” No, it’s not the discarded first line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, but Alex MacLaren’s description of how his students feel in work meetings, job interviews or even the pub. MacLaren teaches improvisational comedy at the Spontaneity Shop in London. At first, its courses attracted performers. Now, he estimates half his students are seeking help with anxiety or confidence.

It’s a trend noted by other improv teachers. In Manchester, Brainne Edge runs workshops as head of ComedySportz UK. In the past five years she’s seen the proportion of non-performers attending her courses rise to around 75%.

Sarah Farrell, 40, a graphic designer from Manchester and Ryan Kelly, 34, head of digital at a London creative agency, are two such students. Farrell was struggling with social anxiety and depression. Kelly was preparing to be best man at a friend’s wedding and was dreading the speech. They are both fans of the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? and imagined how the confidence needed to perform in an improv show could help them.


It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth

Ryan Kelly

“This was my first time speaking in front of 200-odd people,” says Kelly. “I didn’t relish the thought, so I thought I’d do something that would make me more confident.” Farrell already attended therapy sessions, which she finds useful, but felt she needed something more. “I was dealing with suicidal thoughts at the time, [so] maybe it was to distract myself from those long Saturday afternoons,” she says.

Going into the first session was intimidating (“I made my friend come with me – I wasn’t that brave!”), but Farrell found a welcoming environment.

Edge says: “We work hard to make it a comfortable space for people to try things and play and not worry about consequences.” MacLaren agrees: “We have to move people from mild social anxiety … into a playful and safe space.”

The teachers identify improv principles that could help to combat anxiety. First, they try to remove the fear of failure – teaching students that there is no “wrong” thing to say. “That is incredibly powerful because we are so used to trying to get the answer right,” says MacLaren.

Games help students get used to speaking their thoughts. “We did word disassociation games where you run around the room, point at things and say a word that it wasn’t,” says Kelly. “It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth.”

Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.


Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.

Farrell stopped overanalysing her thoughts so much. “You try to be less inside your head,” she says. “With anxiety and depression you’ve always got the running commentary about how bad and useless you are. Getting that to shut up and just talking is massively helpful for me.”

Once participants are comfortable with the possibility of messing up, they can start saying yes to new experiences – or in improv, “Yes, and”. It means embracing and building on character and scenario ideas others bring to the stage. In real life, it could mean accepting a social invitation or simply participating in a conversation. “You learn to say yes even when you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” says MacLaren.

Comedian Pippa Evans performs improv at the Comedy Store and with Josie Lawrence as part of Glenda J Collective. She also runs Improv Your Life, for non-performers. “I started doing it because I found improvisation really helped me,” she says. At work, she moved from being “an absolute control freak” to embracing her colleagues’ suggestions. It also helped her let go of the need to have a five-year life plan: “Improvisation allowed me to be open to a life where I don’t know what’s at the end of the tunnel and therefore appreciate what’s happening in the moment.”

Evans hopes to share these benefits and relates parts of her course to everyday situations. In her game “That reminds me”, a single word prompts a series of anecdotes, each inspired by the last, highlighting that every contribution keeps conversation flowing.

Most beginner courses don’t involve a performance, beyond working with classmates. But this can be too much. “We’ve had that a couple of times,” says Edge. “People have turned up and gone, ‘This is very big and loud, I’m not ready for this yet.’”

For Kelly, the course was fun and useful: “It made me a lot more relaxed; I actually enjoyed the [best man] speech.” He’s since noticed extra benefits. “I used to not enjoy big social things – working the room was very stressful,” he says. “I now look forward to those more. People aren’t judging you in real life. Don’t be afraid to put your thoughts into the conversation.”

After completing her course, Farrell signed up for the next level, which concluded in a performance. She’s since been back for more and would do it again. “You stop playing when you get older – everything becomes serious business – but it releases a lot of pressure,” she says. “I think [improv] saved my life. It opened me up to being a better version of myself.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

‘Improv saved my life’: the comedy classes helping people with anxiety

“Your heart’s beating faster, you feel all these eyes on you, your body reacts with panic.” No, it’s not the discarded first line of Eminem’s Lose Yourself, but Alex MacLaren’s description of how his students feel in work meetings, job interviews or even the pub. MacLaren teaches improvisational comedy at the Spontaneity Shop in London. At first, its courses attracted performers. Now, he estimates half his students are seeking help with anxiety or confidence.

It’s a trend noted by other improv teachers. In Manchester, Brainne Edge runs workshops as head of ComedySportz UK. In the past five years she’s seen the proportion of non-performers attending her courses rise to around 75%.

Sarah Farrell, 40, a graphic designer from Manchester and Ryan Kelly, 34, head of digital at a London creative agency, are two such students. Farrell was struggling with social anxiety and depression. Kelly was preparing to be best man at a friend’s wedding and was dreading the speech. They are both fans of the TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? and imagined how the confidence needed to perform in an improv show could help them.


It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth

Ryan Kelly

“This was my first time speaking in front of 200-odd people,” says Kelly. “I didn’t relish the thought, so I thought I’d do something that would make me more confident.” Farrell already attended therapy sessions, which she finds useful, but felt she needed something more. “I was dealing with suicidal thoughts at the time, [so] maybe it was to distract myself from those long Saturday afternoons,” she says.

Going into the first session was intimidating (“I made my friend come with me – I wasn’t that brave!”), but Farrell found a welcoming environment.

Edge says: “We work hard to make it a comfortable space for people to try things and play and not worry about consequences.” MacLaren agrees: “We have to move people from mild social anxiety … into a playful and safe space.”

The teachers identify improv principles that could help to combat anxiety. First, they try to remove the fear of failure – teaching students that there is no “wrong” thing to say. “That is incredibly powerful because we are so used to trying to get the answer right,” says MacLaren.

Games help students get used to speaking their thoughts. “We did word disassociation games where you run around the room, point at things and say a word that it wasn’t,” says Kelly. “It teaches you to have a better link between your brain and your mouth.”

Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.


Alex MacLaren and Jana Carpenter, improvisation teachers at the Spontaneity Shop.

Farrell stopped overanalysing her thoughts so much. “You try to be less inside your head,” she says. “With anxiety and depression you’ve always got the running commentary about how bad and useless you are. Getting that to shut up and just talking is massively helpful for me.”

Once participants are comfortable with the possibility of messing up, they can start saying yes to new experiences – or in improv, “Yes, and”. It means embracing and building on character and scenario ideas others bring to the stage. In real life, it could mean accepting a social invitation or simply participating in a conversation. “You learn to say yes even when you don’t know where you’re going to end up,” says MacLaren.

Comedian Pippa Evans performs improv at the Comedy Store and with Josie Lawrence as part of Glenda J Collective. She also runs Improv Your Life, for non-performers. “I started doing it because I found improvisation really helped me,” she says. At work, she moved from being “an absolute control freak” to embracing her colleagues’ suggestions. It also helped her let go of the need to have a five-year life plan: “Improvisation allowed me to be open to a life where I don’t know what’s at the end of the tunnel and therefore appreciate what’s happening in the moment.”

Evans hopes to share these benefits and relates parts of her course to everyday situations. In her game “That reminds me”, a single word prompts a series of anecdotes, each inspired by the last, highlighting that every contribution keeps conversation flowing.

Most beginner courses don’t involve a performance, beyond working with classmates. But this can be too much. “We’ve had that a couple of times,” says Edge. “People have turned up and gone, ‘This is very big and loud, I’m not ready for this yet.’”

For Kelly, the course was fun and useful: “It made me a lot more relaxed; I actually enjoyed the [best man] speech.” He’s since noticed extra benefits. “I used to not enjoy big social things – working the room was very stressful,” he says. “I now look forward to those more. People aren’t judging you in real life. Don’t be afraid to put your thoughts into the conversation.”

After completing her course, Farrell signed up for the next level, which concluded in a performance. She’s since been back for more and would do it again. “You stop playing when you get older – everything becomes serious business – but it releases a lot of pressure,” she says. “I think [improv] saved my life. It opened me up to being a better version of myself.”

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

‘We saved your kebab’: MEPs vote against ban on doner meat additive

The European parliament has narrowly defeated plans to ban an additive considered key in industrial meats for the doner kebab.

Needing an absolute majority of at least 376 votes for a ban on phosphates, the chamber was three short, voting 373 to 272, with 30 abstentions.

The decision had been keenly expected by the doner kebab industry, which says it needs phosphates to keep the frozen meat juicy, tender and tasty. Others argued that eating phosphates increased the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

“We saved your kebab. You’re welcome,” said the Christian Democrat EPP group, which argued for keeping the phosphates because it said there was no proof of negative health effects.

The Socialists and Greens led the arguments for the ban on health grounds. “This is a sad day for consumer rights, which have been trampled on,” said the Greens’ EU legislator Bart Staes.

The vote had been portrayed by some as a battle to save the kebab from EU encroachment. But if phosphates had been banned, the industry would only have looked for alternative additives for doner kebabs, which are as popular in some European cities as the hamburger is in the US.

The European Food Safety Agency is due to investigate the use of phosphates next year, which could reignite the debate.