TALK to someone about your mental health issues one-to-one or stand up on stage in front of 200 strangers and bare your soul? Give Gary Little the latter any time.

The Glasgow comic has fashioned a career out of making people laugh. He's doesn't go for the rat-a-tat-tat approach of quickfire gags. Instead, he is a storyteller, a man full of observations, and often the candid subject matter is his own mental health and his past struggles with depression.

An imposing figure at 6ft 2in, 'Big Gary Little' is not one for tip-toeing around sensitive issues. Along with mental health, he speaks openly about two spells in prison in his younger days, and how he has used those negative experiences to build a life full of positivity.

Jail-time and mental health are undoubtedly serious subjects, but humour can be a useful coping mechanism to navigate a path through both, and it's safe to say Gary's own lived experience has given him deep reserves of material to mine.

"With other illnesses, you know when you’re not well, but with depression it’s maybe there for a while before you even realise it, and it can be a while before you face up to it," Gary told Support in Mind Scotland. "It's a few years since I last felt it, but I kid myself on that I am just one sad song away from going back into depression."

In a city with a reputation for hard men and hard lives, Gary is acutely aware that stigma can add an extra layer of difficulty to those living with mental ill health.

"I think it’s a bit better now than it was, but In saying that, I still think most people wouldn’t put it on their job application," says Gary. "You can kid on it's good to talk about it, but the sad reality is that employers might look at it and see someone declaring depression on their application and start to wonder whether they are going to be off work.

"It’s probably ignorance with a lot of people – wondering ‘is he doolally’ is he going to go mental. They don’t realise it can just be a difficult time for someone. They definitely don’t treat physical and mental illness the same. Doctors don’t have the time – they’ve got a couple of minutes to spend with each patient, that’s the pressure they are under. It goes back to cutbacks."

Although his breakthrough on to the comedy circuit came almost by accident (more of which later), he has found the stage and spotlight a comfortable environment to talk about the issue.

"I don’t think I told many people at the time (about my depression). It wasn’t a conscious thing, probably because I didn’t have a huge social circle around me and I wasn’t doing stand up at the time. With stand-up I felt more comfortable speaking to a couple of hundred people about it rather than one-on-one. A couple of times I have spoken to people face to face and broken down, whereas on stage it’s different.

"For me, the really positive thing about when I have spoken about depression on stage is the feedback I have had from people in the audience. People have come up to me and said it’s the first time they have heard someone talk about it. They will maybe tell me about a member of their family, or their own experiences.

"If I’m up there (on stage) laughing at my own experiences there may be people in the audience who can relate to that. That kind of black humour can help - it’s easier to laugh about something than bottle it all up."

A string of comedians have helped publicise mental health in recent years, but Gary rejects the notion that a disproportionate number of his peers suffer from mental health problems.

"There is a bit of a cliché that a lot of comics suffer from depression," he says. "It affects 1 in 4 people so there is a fair chance of someone from any walk of life being affected. But I think with comedy, because you are dealing with highs and low, it maybe receives more attention. You could have 100 good gigs, then you have a shitey gig, and you come off and you’re beating yourself up. I’d imagine there are quite a few comics who suffer from mental health issues, but I think you can apply the same percentage to the general population.

"If comedy is associated with mental health then it is a good thing if it gets more people talking about it. I think it does some good for people suffering from depression to hear from high profile people who have also been dealing with it... people like Stephen Fry - a big name doing stuff for mental health. If they can see it’s not held them back it might help them cope better or be a bit more positive in the future."

Gary, now 51, was persuaded into comedy by friends who had heard him tell stories of Glasgow life, his mental health battles and his time behind bars. After impressing at open mic nights, he was 39 by the time he made his debut at the Glasgow Comedy Festival. He's been a regular fixture at the Festival ever since and he is back this year with 'Gentle Eyes' for a sell-out gig in March.

Gary now appears throughout the country and is a familiar face on the Scottish comedy circuit, He can also count some big names among his friends and colleagues. "Kevin Bridges if you’re wanting namedropping," he laughs. "I'm also pals with Frankie Boyle, Raymond Means, Janey Godley, Des McLean and other stalwarts of Scottish comedy who have been around since I started working."

He did his first Edinburgh Fringe in 2009, reappeared in 2014 and 2015, and will have new material to unleash on the capital's cultural bonanza again in 2016. Comedy has also taken him much further afield.

"I get some people suggesting that the material doesn’t travel, but you don’t just have to be from Glasgow to be depressed. The material is universal, it’s been all over. You get about. I’ve been to New York, Saudi Arabia, Canada. We did a gigs in Oman, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bharain and you sometimes wonder if they understand you, but there are people from Edinburgh who don’t understand me! The thought of some guy from Oman saying ‘what’s bawbag, what does that mean?’ makes me laugh."

Gary's late entry into comedy can be partly attributed to an early entry into Her Majesty's Prison Service, and while he has put these mistakes behind him to focus on a life which he splits between comedy, his girlfriend, hill-walking and his dogs, he has no qualms talking about his past.

"I’m not ashamed or embarrassed about anything, because it is what it is," he says. "You can’t be hiding from the past. I think if you do that you’re always worried. The only time I’m hiding from my past is when I’m trying to get through customs in America – then I just lie! I’m not ashamed because it is my past and if I can use it to some good, through stories or material, then that can be a positive thing."

Prison gigs are commonplace for Gary and he is passionate about giving people encouragement and a second chance where possible.

"Like mental health, if people in prison can see that it has not held me back, then that can do a bit of good. I’m not saying everyone can be a comic. Being in prison can stop you from getting a lot of jobs, but not as a comic. I didn’t sit there feeling sorry for myself, I’ll never be anything else, if I can start something at 39 then there must be a chance for alot of people.

"I've done gigs in Barlinnie, Shotts, Polmont, Greenock, Addiewell. The first time I did it I recognised a few people who had been in there when I had been inside. You are a wee bit nervous because you are thinking it will be a tough crowd, but they are there for a laugh and it breaks up the day. They’ve been good, I’ve enjoyed them."

Political comment is also prevalent in Gary's material and outlook and he is happy to champion the need for improved mental health provision in Scotland and throughout the UK.

"Money is tight and  services such as drop-in centres are being cut. Short term it’s bad enough but it’s going to be even worse in the long term because people will become more islotaed, sometimes with nowhere to turn. To me, it’s seem that it's the most vulnerable people that are getting penalised."

Gary is contented, grounded, and extremely grateful for what he has got. But he will never take his vocation or his mental health for granted.

"I love it," he says. "When you come off the stage and it’s been a good gig there is no better feeling. I never treat it as a job. I’m never blasé about it. I know the luxury I have that people who have a 9-5 don’t. All of that has been good for my mental health,. I know how lucky I am with my life at the moment. I take nothing for granted."

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