Conquer Life filmed its first Thursday Talk at our headquarters in Wicker Park on March 17th. To kick off this series, Dr. Cliff Saper sat down with comedian Hannah Roeschlein to discuss mental health, comedy, the pandemic, and much more.
Conquer Life sat down with Cliff prior to the event to talk about his unique background of combined fields.
Q: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me and for participating in this event. Can you tell me about your background working in the mental health field?
Cliff: I am a clinical psychologist and have been involved in working with people with emotional, behavioral and cognitive challenges and have been interested in that field ever since I was in college. I originally was interested in working in the community and reaching out to people to make sure that mental health treatment was accessible. I wanted to help folks reduce the stigma of asking for support. Since I came to graduate school here in Chicago, I have been involved in a pretty large health system that is geared toward working with patients with mental illnesses and addictions…my role is to also take care of our health care workers and making sure that they understand, especially over the last couple of years, that it’s OK not to be OK and that there is no shame in asking for help. Emotional PPE is just as important as physical PPE.
Q: Over the years, how do you think society’s view of mental health has changed?
Cliff: I think very slowly people have started to understand the importance of mental health, the importance of self care and well-being. However, it moved at a snail’s pace in my opinion. But when the pandemic hit and there was no cure for the virus, and people were freaking out, suddenly mental health seemed to be the only issue we could do anything about–how to help people with their fears, their panic, their anxiety, with their grief. Suddenly in our health system, mental health and behavioral medicine took center stage. I hope that continues.
Q: Can you talk to me a little bit about the relationship between the 2 fields you have decided to pursue: as a psychologist and also performing comedy? What got you interested in comedy?
Cliff: I’ve always been interested in theater and in performance. In some ways, therapy is very similar to theater, in that it gets people in touch with their feelings and explores issues and ideas that perhaps they haven’t explored before. Even back in high school and college I was involved in theater, and then when I got to Chicago, which is the home of improv and of Second City, I got very interested in the history of improv. As I got into it, I started to learn the strategies we learn in comedy and improv, like being present, and in the moment and spontaneous. To see that even serious things can have a funny aspect and that it’s okay to laugh even in the midst of crisis and trauma.
About 8 or 9 years ago Dave Carbonell [fellow member of The Therapy Players] and I were talking and said ‘I wonder if we can get a bunch of people together who have a similar view of the use of comedy not only in therapy but as a way to entertain and let people forget their worries.’ So he and I spread the word and sure enough, right away we got a really positive response. And so we’ve been doing this now for 8 years. We try really hard not to make fun of patients or diagnoses, but to instead look at and make fun of ourselves, both as therapists and human beings that are all in this together.
Q: Has it been a consistent group of players [involved in the troupe]? Do people rotate in and out?
Cliff: This has been a pretty stable group of several years. It’s unusual in Chicagoland for a group to be as stable and steady and long lasting as we have. I think it’s because of this mental health niche, actually.
Q: Shifting a little bit here, what effect did the pandemic have on performing? Did you all go on hiatus? How did you all navigate that?
Cliff: We never took a break. We pivoted, as many people did, very quickly to virtual. We found in fact that you could do improv virtually and we found that there was a need for us, especially for people that were having mental health conferences and they wanted a break–one boring paper after the other–virtually, they would have us come in and perform during their social hour and do comedy and have people interact by going in the chat and giving us improv suggestions. People were burnt out and just wanted something to lift them up. So we just kept going. And we just came back totally live recently. Around Halloween time, we went to San Antonio for a mental health conference and performed for 300 people. We sort of shut down again and then in the last month or so, we’ve been performing again pretty regularly, at least a couple of times a month.
Q: Talk to me about the therapeutic effects of improv specifically.
Cliff: I think there’s a high price in improv on being spontaneous, unplanned–being in touch with your emotions in the present. It’s exciting and you’re on edge. You don’t know what’s going to happen next and there’s no script. You’re flying without a net. It gives people a sense of excitement and uncertainty and you learn to live with that uncertainty, which is something that we are always teaching in therapy. You’re never going to be certain of anything, so can you allow yourself to just live with that. That’s a message we give when we perform improv. It’s about play, it’s about being back to childhood. People like to watch a group that’s having fun. I think that’s why improv, even more than a scripted play, has some rejuvenating qualities.
Dr. Cliff Saper is currently the Director of Clinical Services at AMITA Behavioral Health as well as a member of The Therapy Players, a Chicago-based improv troupe of mental health professionals that consistently performs in the Chicagoland area. You can see upcoming shows and learn more about the The Therapy Players at therapyplayers.com.
Conquer Life is a media company and online community established in 2019 with an app that features resources, daily affirmations, talks on mental health, documentaries and much more. Check out conquerlifeco.com for more info.#Blog