Text Size:   A+ A- A   •   Text Only
Site Image

OSH patients gain new perspectives through humor therapy

humor therapy
OSH patients Robert Sage (left) and Clark Jennings laugh while watching stand-up comedy. As part of their treatment, Sage and Jennings are using humor therapy to help change negative thought patterns and learn to use laughter as a coping strategy.

It's said laughter is the best medicine. For a group of patients at Oregon State Hospital, there is truth to this old adage.


"Let's face it, life is not always a bowl of cherries, and we need to be able to laugh," says patient Craig Haberman. "It's helpful, it's healthy and it gives you a whole different attitude on life in general. I think it's extremely important to use humor in your life every day."


Haberman says he has used humor all his life to connect to others and, with the help of mental health specialist Charlene Barber, he is now using his sense of humor as a means of therapy.


"Many of our patients have suffered through traumatic experiences or dealt with severe addictions, and they've forgotten how to laugh," says Barber. "Their life has been about survival, and they're holding on to a lot of anger and negative feelings. Humor and laughter can help them let go and get past some of that."


Historically, humor therapy has been used to treat a variety of physical ailments, and research has shown that the human body benefits in a number of ways from laughing. Laughter results in the release of positive endorphins that help with pain and stress management, increases the production of T-cells that strengthen the immune system, exercises the body's cardiovascular system, and lowers blood pressure.


While humor therapy has been successfully used in hospitals to treat physical ailments, it is not often associated with the treatment of mental illness. Barber, who facilitates two weekly humor therapy groups, says that while the physical benefits of laughter are significant, the emotional and social benefits are just as valuable.


"When you're healthier physically, you're going to be healthier mentally," Barber says. "Laughing helps ease anxieties and fears. It relieves stress, improves your mood and helps you build and strengthen relationships with others."


Barber uses a number of methods to help patients learn to recognize and appreciate the humor or irony in a situation. She shows patients clips of stand-up comedians, particularly those who talk about their own struggles with mental illness or addiction. Patients also are asked to recall issues or situations in which they could have used humor to deal with a problem. As they become more comfortable with the idea of using humor as a coping strategy, some patients even find that they're able to joke about their life experiences and problems they've faced.


While the act of laughing itself provides so many benefits, Barber says humor therapy's ultimate value is in helping patients change their perceptions, which often hinder the healing process.


"If you just look for the negative, that's what you're going to find," Barber says. "When you can learn to laugh at a situation, it helps you keep things in perspective, and that helps you find the positive. When you start seeing things in a more positive light, you're going to be happier and happier people will have a faster recovery."