Willson: It’s okay to deal with tragedy through humor

Lauren Willson

This is a Collegian head to head. The columns are in response to a recent video of YouTube star Logan Paul filming and mocking a victim of suicide. This instance brings up an important question: Is humor an appropriate way to cope with tragedy? Columnist Lauren Willson believes humor is an appropriate way to cope with suicide. The opposing view can be found here

Suicide is obviously a controversial subject. Just look online. Logan Paul, a YouTube star, caused social media backlash by posting a vlog in which he filmed a recently deceased body in Japan’s infamous Aokigahara forest, more commonly referred to as the “Suicide Forest.” When he saw the corpse, Paul responded initially with mild jokes, which he now claims were the misguided product of shock and disbelief

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Suicide jokes are usually deemed cruel and tasteless. But they shouldn’t be. Here’s why: humor is an incredibly effective way of coping with life’s complexities and troubles. With the use of one-liners, satire, parodies, and the like, our lives become a lot less bleak. Simply put, jokes are a way to view tragic situations through a glass-half-full lens.

humor is an incredibly effective way of coping with life’s complexities and troubles. With the use of one-liners, satire, parodies, and the like, our lives become a lot less bleak.

I know what it’s like to want to kill yourself. I’ve attempted it twice. During those times, it seemed like the only way out of horrible circumstances. Fortunately, I realized that suicide was not the best or only option. Looking back on it now, I can recognize how irrationally I acted, and deal with that embarrassment by laughing about it, and by laughing at myself.

Everyone copes with tragedy in a different way, so it’s important to ask those affected how best they can be supported. Some need time to be alone, some need to cry, some need to have deep conversation to process the event. A great many take solace in the company of friends and family, who might make jokes in order to lighten their loved one’s spirits. This is not meant to downplay the severity of a tragedy like a suicide, but rather to help the affected address a painful subject with humor. If the humor is accepted, it produces positive emotions and mitigates the negativity associated with tragic occurrences.

The positive impacts of joke-telling are not only based on empirical data. Formal research supports the idea that humor can have emotionally advantageous properties. A 2011 study by Stanford University found that when participants were shown negative pictures and chose to respond with positive humor (as opposed to negative humor or simple viewing of the image), the researchers determined that “positive humor was more successful at down-regulating negative and up-regulating positive emotion.” In basic terms, this means that choosing to view a negative situation through a lens of positive humor is likely to result in more positive emotions. Quite simple in theory, but easy to forget in the face of a difficult scenario.

I’m not saying that jokes are the best way to cope with suicide, but they shouldn’t be completely disregarded or banned. What bothers me is that effective coping mechanisms like humor can be passed over because they have been mislabeled with a “trigger warning.”

I struggled with anorexia nervosa for over a decade, so I understand how specific words and images can make you fall back into destructive behaviors. But sheltering myself from “pro-ana” websites, diet foods, or eating disorder jokes was not the reason I recovered. If anything, the more I exposed myself to triggers, the more quickly I realized how much my eating disorder was negatively disrupting my life. As I became comfortable with the things I had once deemed uncomfortable, like “triggering” jokes, I was finally able to heal.

Reality, however, has no trigger warnings. Here’s the reality: at an estimated rate of 123 cases per day, suicide happens far too frequently. If it weren’t for the stigma surrounding it, and the ever-growing hypersensitivity around taboo subjects, perhaps those struggling with suicidal thoughts would feel more comfortable talking about their symptoms.

Starting the conversation about suicide—in a serious or humorous manner—is a nonviolent, cost-free way to make it less taboo, more mainstream, and hopefully less common. Unsure of how to start the conversation? I’ve always heard that jokes are a good icebreaker.

Columnist Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @LaurenKealani