The concept of those in the entertainment industry, specifically in the field of comedy, struggling with mental health issues is nothing new. Although it may seem like two vastly distinct worlds, it is often the comedy these people put out in their professional lives that functions as an escape from the issues that afflict them in their everyday life. Many giants in the field of comedy, such as Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Robin Williams, have all dealt with mental health issues from early on in their lives and careers. Unfortunately for the case of Williams, his struggle was ultimately what ended his life. These challenges can frequently aid the work that comedians come up with. In CNN’s “The History of Comedy” series, Richard Lewis said of his struggle, “I despised myself from pretty much close to getting out of the womb. I was always wrong. Let’s start with that. When you are always wrong, you seek an audience to disprove that theory.” One such individual in the comedy world of today who exhibits this, at just 24 years old already a four-year “Saturday Night Live” veteran, is Pete Davidson, who deals with borderline personality disorder. Although his struggle consumes his life, ultimately, with the increased awareness of mental health in society in the 21st century that didn’t exist when the pioneers of comedy were in their prime, Davidson will be able to gain something that can help him in his struggles through BPD, and maybe even serve to inspire younger generations.
As a comedian, Pete Davidson is probably most known for two things: his self-deprecating style of humor that plays on his own personality and life experiences, and for being one the youngest people to ever be a regular cast member of Saturday Night Live, hired at just 20 years old and the first cast member to be born in the 90s. With such an impressive feat under his belt, one would think Davidson is a wunderkind who truly has it all. However, not unlike many in the world of professional comedy, Davidson’s mental health struggle has followed him through his life, and been a key component of the various highs and lows he has endured along the way.
Davidson first started going to therapy when he was seven years old, after his parents had gotten a divorce. However, the moment that altered his life forever happened six months after that, on September 11th, 2001, when Davidson, a native of the borough of Staten Island in New York City, lost his father, a long-time New York firefighter in the catastrophe. Losing any figure close to us is very tough, but in Davidson’s case, where he lost his father at an age where he was both extremely young, yet also being emotionally intelligent enough to grasp the finality of death, and then adding the fact that it was on one of the most tragic days in recent history altered him forever. He struggled with making meaningful connections in school, as he was constantly looking for reassurance that was not there. When Davidson started working in comedy, he actually started making friends, because so many in comedy were a lot like him. “Most comics also have a pretty horrible past of one kind or another,” Davidson said in an interview with Marc Maron, host of the podcast “WTF with Marc Maron.”
Davidson was first diagnosed with borderline personality disorder early on in 2017, after a lifetime of therapists telling him he had either that or bipolar disorder, and then after recent moths where Davidson had recurrent episodes of blind rage that he didn’t know what to attribute to. He tried different things, like stopping smoking marijuana and drinking, going to rehab, and different medications, but it wasn’t until his official diagnosis that things improved. When the diagnosis came, it was a relief, in that it finally allowed for him to put a label on his years of struggle. Borderline personality disorder can be difficult to diagnose, and is different in everyone. It is associated with difficulty in regulating one’s emotions, which can cause instability of moods, relationships, self-image, and behavior over all. Davidson said that losing his father so young affected him tremendously in how he viewed abandonment and trust. He realized from a very young age that all of a sudden, people could just no longer be present. Davison spoke on this in the podcast: “I used to have trouble when sometimes my mom would be like, ‘I’m going out.’ When people say that they’re leaving, and coming back, I get this really big fear that they’re not [going to] come back.”
Fortunately, Davidson is in a place where he can perform and do what he loves, while also getting help and treatment he needs. In the world of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, these resources were often not a reality or part of comedians’ lives. To talk about issues like depression and alcoholism in the context of mental illness was not a reality. Davidson takes medication, attends therapy, and uses techniques of DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy, in his day-to-day life. With that, his therapist will teach him how to implement habits, usually smaller things, to essentially trick your brain into thinking everything is going to be okay when you feel something coming on. It is even possible that Davidson could grow out of his BPD symptoms, through using different skills and concepts of DBT over time. Though the association between professional comedy and mental health has only continued over the years, hopefully, people like Davidson, who are making use of mental health resources, can continue in the push to normalize a discourse about the realities of mental illness in society and work to end the stigma surrounding it for future generations.