The Healing Value of Clowning

October 3, 2014

Clown faces and masks are obvious disguises, but we also disguise ourselves in everyday and therapeutic life, and often therapy has to work through these disguises to get to the core.

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You may not have noticed, but one of yesterday’s highlighted obituaries in my hometown Milwaukee Journal Sentinel described the life of Floyd “Creeky” Creekmore: “World’s oldest clown dies at 98 in Montana.” He “clowned” until he was 96. In addition to my September 26th piece, “Comedic Psychology, Joan Rivers, and Robin Williams,” clowning is another form of comedy.

In fact, clowning is the one form of comedy that has been embraced the most in health care. Patch Adams, MD became renowned for bringing the healing nature of clowning to hospitalized children. Robin Williams played Dr Adams in the movie of his life.

If any medical specialty should appreciate Dr Adams’ prophetic vision of the healing power of love, that should be psychiatry. Indeed, Carl Hammerschlag, MD understood, and was mentored by Dr Adams, and has joined Dr Adams in many clinical situations. In blogs, videos, and pictures, Dr Hammerschlag’s website, Schlagbyte, conveys how healing the gentleness and lightness of psychiatric clowning can be.

Dr Hammerschlag had previously been renowned for his psychiatric work with Native Americans, including several books on his experiences. Here, too, he understood the therapeutic value of disguise.

I once attended a Workshop he led at a major psychiatric meeting. He had us wear paper facemasks of our own creation, and then he had us discuss how they made us feel and interact. It was quite a unique learning experience.

Clown faces and masks are obvious disguises, but we also disguise ourselves in everyday and therapeutic life, and often therapy has to work through these disguises to get to the core.

View Dr Hammerschlag’s recent “Miraculous Day” post, replete with text, pictures, and video. On the 10th annual trip to Iquitos, Peru, 130 clowns participated in a community preventive health initiative-including a mental health clinic in the streets. There, Dr Hammerschlag transcended cultural boundaries to therapeutically guide a woman away from suicide. This encounter may evoke laughter, but it will be tears of joy.

"Miraculous Day" concludes with the description of his encounter: “It doesn’t take a long time to connect at the soul level if you are actively in the moment, and it is in those miraculous moments that we are reminded of our shared humanity.”