One to Watch: Laura Hart
24 October 2017 at 8:37 am
Laura Hart is the founder of Improv Comedy for Young People with Anxiety. She is One to Watch.
A total of 60 of Australia’s brightest young changemakers have been selected by the Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) to take part in the 2017 Young Social Pioneers (YSP) program. It is Australia’s first, and only, national youth entrepreneurship incubator designed exclusively for young people leading initiatives that respond to society’s most pressing challenges. In this mini-series Pro Bono News speaks to a pioneer from each of the nine categories across the program about the differences they are hoping to make.
After living with anxiety for a number of years, Hart says it felt “magical”, to stumble across improv.
The 26-year-old performer and improviser from Sydney, who has trained at Impro Australia, Improv Theatre Sydney and UCB New York, decided to let others in on her secret.
She created, Improve Mind, an improv program for young people with anxiety.
Hart, who has also previously worked creatively with not for profits such as Camp Quality and The Starlight Children’s Foundation has now been selected for the YSP program as part of the Youth Mental Health Stream, supported by The Wilson Foundation.
Here she talks to Pro Bono News about what it’s like to be a young person with anxiety in 2017, the importance of finding creative approaches to mindfulness and how with improv there is no wrong answer.
I think for me, having lived with anxiety for so long, it has been such a difficult journey. Especially navigating the current kind of mental health environment, I was very tired trying to do the traditional therapies, and not really finding anything that was interesting or new or creative. I think a lot of people see mindfulness as being something you do very quietly, in a room watching a candle and meditating, which is fantastic for some people but it doesn’t work for everyone.
So coming from a theatre and communications background I kind of stumbled upon standup comedy and improvisation, and noticed the benefits that it was having for myself and for my own management of anxiety. Obviously it is still really important for me to go to therapy and take medication, but there was this extra creative, energising and fun aspect that the improv had, so that’s where it all started.
How does Improv Comedy for Young People with Anxiety work?
I see improv as extreme mindfulness, because when someone is improvising they are being vulnerable, they are letting go of control, they are having fun, building resilience through humour, they are learning how to communicate and you have to be in the moment, you can’t be thinking about the future or past if you are making things up on the spot. So that is kind of how I pitch it to people and how it really works to help people with anxiety.
Who are you targeting?
We are looking at 18 to 35 year olds with a diagnosis of anxiety, so looking at that group of young people and then eventually extending it to an adolescent specific program, because I have worked a lot with other not for profits, so the Starlight Foundation, Camp Quality, Ted Noffs Foundation and Milk Crate Theatre, all working creatively with young people, so that is another big passion area for me.
What are your goals?
I would love to get to the stage where I can train other facilitators so that geographically we can expand the program and it can reach more people. I think a school specific program would be amazing, because I know for myself personally I had my first panic attack at 17, while doing the HSC exams so I think there is a big proponent of young people experiencing exam stress that could really benefit from a program like this. And also taking it into the corporate environment would be I think very useful. So really just expanding and getting more staff on board so we can spread that message.
Do you think it helps that you are relatively young when leading this organisation?
I think that is really key, especially because a lot of people see if they’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness, when they go to seek help, a lot of the people helping them are older because they are going to see psychologists and psychiatrists, their GP. There’s not a lot of innovative, creative, youth-led ideas out there to help people with their mental health. I think especially because I have that lived experience being able to really relate on what it is like to be a young person with anxiety living in 2017 and how can we best help ourselves.
What is it like to be a young person with anxiety in 2017?
I think it is really difficult. Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in Australia, so one in four people have anxiety, so it is incredibly prevalent and I think more and more we’re having to deal with a very stressful lifestyle. Social media and the opportunities as well as the expectations that are put on young people is really, really intense. So I think as a young person trying to find ways to be a bit more creative and innovative around how we can best look after our mental health is really important as well as sharing our stories. I think that is a big part of it as well, being in a group setting and everybody knowing that we all have anxiety and that it is ok, and that the help is there and that there is so much common experience in that, I think is a really powerful message to be spreading to young people.
What motivated you to turn your experience into helping others?
I think because I saw a gap in the services that were available for people with anxiety. There wasn’t anything that I saw that was really fun and and active and interesting and different. I wasn’t motivated to look after my mental health, I think that is a big problem. I think we need to be motivated and I think we need to be giving people a reason to look after their mental health, apart from just saying it is something that you should do.
So I think from my own experience, that was really important when I stumbled across improv, it felt magical, it felt like I had discovered a little secret and I had to share that. Because I was mindful, I was laughing, I was having a great time and it was so youthful and it really motivated me to go back and do therapy and to take my medication. I think it was that and I thought this was too good not to share, I have to show this around to people, especially improv, not many people know about it and it can seem really scary. So we are showing people it is not scary and it can be fun.
As you say, for many the idea of improv is itself a quite scary, how do you overcome that?
I think a lot of people find the idea of improv terrifying and that’s really valid. But I think once you get into my class you realise that it is actually really fun and very supportive. With improv, there is no wrong answer, you can’t make a mistake, there is no script to follow, nobody is telling you what to do, so there’s actually a lot of freedom and it’s a really positive environment, you’ve got a whole group of people standing on the side of the stage with you that are there to support you, so it is really fun. And in this type of course, we are not getting up one stage and asking anyone to perform for an hour. We go at a very slow pace and it is more about having a play, letting go and meeting other people in a really fun environment, giving yourself some skills to look after your mental health and learn mindfulness. It is not about getting up and being a standup comedian or an improviser for a big show.
What advice would you give to other young people who want to make a difference?
I think it is really important to stay motivated and find the people who support your idea. I think the motivation is a really key thing, because young people are often viewed as being quite slack, there is the term “slacktivism”, just kind of being keyboard warriors but I think that actually young people are incredible caring, they do care about what’s going on. It is just about being motivated to take action and to find the people who will be able to support you. I couldn’t do this without the support of some amazing people in my life. And look after your well being, look after your mental health, because you won’t be able to help other people, if you can’t first help yourself.
What are you hoping to get out of the YSP program?
I’ve just stepped out of a panel discussion with Gillian Triggs. So I think that gives a good indication of how much I am getting out of it. It is amazing. The networking is incredible, I am absolutely just blown away by the other participants in all of the different streams, and it has motivated me to keep going with my idea, to see so many people who are active and doing incredible things for their communities. And I think as well, just giving me the business tools. I did a bachelor of communications,and I’ve done theatre and not for profits, I have not learnt about budgeting or impact measurement or brand, there are a whole bunch of those really practical skills that they’re giving me that have just boosted me and saved me a lot of time as well.
Where do you see yourself in five years time?
In five years I would love for my improv comedy to be my full time gig, to be able to have the program run all around Australia, and also be spreading my message by travelling around the world and speaking about the concept of creative approaches to mindfulness as well. That would be amazing. And surrounded by dogs, I love dogs.