Aparna Nancherla wants to talk about her mental health disorders ― but she wants you to laugh while you listen.
The 35-year-old Indian-American comedian, who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in college, has made mental health a focal point of her work. In fact, she told Vulture in June, she credits antidepressants for giving her some of the confidence she needed to try stand-up for the first time in 2002.
Nancherla, who says she has a knack for “finding comedy out of existential despair,” has amassed a Twitter following nearly half a million strong, in part by sharing snippets of daily life with depression and advice on taking care of yourself.
And her voice is useful, especially right now: Rapid-fire news cycles inundate our social media feeds on a daily basis, causing some of us extreme anxiety. Sometimes you need to take a moment to remember to laugh. Nancherla helps with that.
INB caught up with the comedian to talk about managing her mental health on the road, coping with trolls online, and the importance of practicing self-care.
How important is it to you to incorporate your own mental health experiences ― or mental health in general ― into your comedy?
I started talking about mental health in my stand-up by virtue of the fact that I was struggling particularly with depression at the time and was having trouble writing about anything else. I tried the material onstage and was surprised how it resonated with the audience. This encouraged me to explore the topic further, as it has been an ongoing issue in my life, both directly and with people I am close to.
At this point, despite its negative impact, my mental demons are a part of who I am, though I hesitate to define myself by any one thing.
How has your view on the role of mental health in your comedy changed over time?
Initially, I thought there were already comedians broaching the topic of mental health very deftly like Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt, Marc Maron and Gary Gulman, and I didn’t think I had anything interesting or new to add to the conversation (a typical perfectionist depressive thought).
What’s your advice for people dealing with anxiety, especially right now when the news is stressful and everything is terrible?
For myself, I have to take breaks from social media and limit my time on there. The internet is a comfortable way to put out content if you are more introverted, like myself. But I don’t think we’re able to cope with the amount of news being thrown at us or the level of crisis it’s engendering in us. It’s useful to know the facts and act accordingly, but the constant level of high alert is only sustainable for so long in order to still be able to live your life. The subtext of the news lately seems to be “panic at all times, you are in danger,” no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on.
Twitter can be an especially toxic place. As an active woman on Twitter with a large following, how do you cope with the trolls?
The mute button is my best friend. It just feels like a polite way of ushering someone to your front door, and depositing them right outside it. You are free to share your opinions with my hydrangea though. (In this hypothetical, I have a hydrangea.)
Do you have advice for young women who participate in social media?
Sometimes I like to think of the internet as a very bossy but fun friend. I enjoy spending time with it but I do need to take breaks or I start to feel resentful and low.
I do have a feeling that in the future we might end up concluding that all this time online was not great for our brains and they might have to invent nicotine gum but for the internet. (Too bad the name e-cigarettes is already taken.)
You’re gearing up for a new tour this fall. How do you manage your mental health while on the road?
That’s a great question. The road can get very lonely very fast. It’s cool to get to perform in lots of new cities, but the travel and hotel rooms is usually the majority of the time in between the shows, and all of that is spent by yourself. I will try and bring a friend to open for me to help with that, which makes a huge difference, I’ve found. But I also generally try to make a routine for myself in new cities, whether that’s just unpacking my bag, finding a nice coffee shop, exercising, meditating, anything that kind of helps me get out of my own overthinking head.
What was dealing with mental health like in your family growing up? How is it different now?
Growing up, I don’t think my family talked openly about mental health or feelings in general. Everything was based more on external achievements and activities.
After I had to take some time off of school in college due to having problems with my eating, which was in turn a mask for depression, I found it did help open up the conversation within my own family. Multiple members of my family deal with depression and anxiety so it’s become a more open conversation now, which is really great and important, and has only brought us closer.
How would you like to change the current conversation around mental health and self care?
I think there’s an increasing openness and awareness around mental health and self-care, which is great, but sometimes it feels like it can be an echo chamber with likeminded people agreeing with each other. I think the trickier part is bringing in people who might not otherwise want to be part of the conversation either because of their own reluctance (conscious or unconscious) to maybe explore that part of themselves or their upbringing or their circumstances or all three.
I’ve been in therapy for years and I realize it’s not everyone’s bag, nor is it readily available to everyone, but it does feel like having someone to talk to in an open and candid way without a personal bias is a valuable thing. I think we’re living in an era of increased isolation, the internet creates the illusion of intimacy without actually providing it, and connection to others is unfortunately becoming a more and more fractured thing.
I would hope in the future we make mental health and self-care a bigger priority, because people’s brains can so easily become their own worst enemies, and it’s a question of managing them before they go too far down that dark path, not just retweeting the suicide prevention hotline number whenever there is a high-profile suicide.
In 2016, you released a few episodes of a depression-themed comedy podcast called “The Blue Woman Group” with Jacqueline Novak. Any plans to revisit this series or launch a similar podcast?
Yes, Jacqueline and I hope to cook up something else in the near to semi-near future! Due to copyright, it probably won’t be the same podcast but it will be something!