Juliette Burton uses laughter as a gateway to greater mental health awareness

Juliette Burton

Juliette Burton - Credit: Archant

Since her teenage years, Juliette Burton has suffered mental health problems and is now addressing them through her comedy shows. As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, she tells Alex Bellotti why some attitudes in society still need to change.

During last month’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ scandal – in which Londoners took offence to Protein World’s body-shaming tube advertisements – comedian Juliette Burton found herself unwittingly in the eye of the storm.

Having petitioned against the advert, she sent a tweet to Protein World’s account explaining why it only encourages women to think they’re not good enough, only for the company to respond ‘Why make your insecurities our problem?’ A back and forth ensued with the company’s CEO, Arjun Seth, whose insulting responses prompted Burton to write a series of articles about ignorance towards mental health.

Since her debut show, When I Grow Up, sold out at the Edinburgh Fringe two years ago, the comedian’s mental health problems have been at the heart of her shows, in the hope that “if you can laugh about something, it’s less scary to talk about”.

During her teenage years, Burton was diagnosed with illnesses including acute anxiety, manic depression, anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating; at one point, she went from being a size six to a size 20 in six months. At the age of 17, she was sectioned multiple times and experienced psychotic episodes.

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Her on-stage demeanor has been described by The Stage as ‘Zooey Deschanel-style glee’, but the Protein World saga proved a traumatic experience for someone who is still on the path to recovery.

“It’s very easy to assume that because people look ‘normal’, that there’s nothing wrong and they’re not struggling because they don’t look ill,” Burton explains.

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“Someone like Robin Williams – nobody thought anything was going on with him but people are struggling with demons inside that none of us have any idea of and this recent news story I found myself at the centre of was an interesting one.”

The material in Burton’s shows is informed by exhaustive research and she was a journalist before switching to comedy, where she found an audience who related to her warm, honest material. This has been the inspiration behind her new monthly event, Happy Hour, at Shoreditch’s The Canvas.

A pay-as-you-feel night for up-and-coming comedians to try out new material in an encouraging environment, it complements Burton’s second show, Look At Me – a docu-comedy which uses footage of her walking around London dressed in racy attire, as a man, as a size 20 and in a hijab to test how appearance changes perceptions.

“It was one of the most tiring weeks of my life, but it was absolutely incredible,” she says of filming the experience. “It was fascinating to see how very dramatically different I felt within myself depending on how I actually looked.”

One of the most encouraging experiences for Burton has been seeing the number of people engaging with her shows.

Despite being ‘trolled’ on Twitter during the Protein World saga, she was overwhelmed by the greater number of support messages she received and hopes it bodes well for the future.

“I would love to live in a society where I can go ‘you know what, I’m struggling today’ and for people to say, ‘I hear you, let’s talk about it’ or ‘let me give you a cuddle.’

“And I would love to do that for other people as well. There are so many more people out there who want to talk about this stuff openly and honestly because that’s the only way that were going to increase understanding.

“Hopefully it will help people feel less alone because, for me, with any problem, if anyone’s left alone and isolated with it then that’s the real killer.”Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour returns on June 2 at Shoredtich’s The Canvas. She performs Look At Me at Leicester Square Theatre on June 17-18.

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