What is Clown Therapy?

What is Clown Therapy?

The Clown/Fool/Jester is a recognizable figure in every culture in recorded history. The clown is an archetype, a human characteristic that’s biologically embedded in the mind, universally present in the human psyche. There are many archetypes; Kings, Warriors, Princesses, Wizards, and Demons, and they are all pieces of ourselves that all reflect unconscious patterns and appear in dreams, myths, fairytales, and wisdom stories.

The Clown archetype is a character that lightens the mood, pokes fun, is irreverent, provides social commentary, flaunts taboos, diffuses anxiety, and embodies healing wisdom. The Clown stands at the threshold between reality and imagination, and in that space allows us to see the world from another perspective.

The literature is filled with both anecdotal and research evidence about the therapeutic efficacy of humor. Laughing in the face of tragedy seems to shield a person from its effects; it even seems to have a buffering effect against physical pain. It’s abundantly clear that the central nervous system, cardiovascular and immune systems are all strengthened by laughter and joyful connections.

The Gesundheit! model of clown therapy is to have clown-clinicians, healthcare practitioners all of whom make their living working with people with problem’s…(doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers, body workers, nutritionists, traditional healers). What distinguishes these clinicians is their willingness to get out of their heads and connect with people at the heart level. Clown therapists trust their intuition, are willing to open channels into their unconscious minds and find something to say or do they might be helpful.

We see people for short periods of time (15-20 minutes), and in public places. We wear clown noses, and are active listeners, which means we are acutely present in every moment. We talk to anyone about anything that’s important to him or her. We do not make diagnoses or prescribe pills. The clown-therapist can acknowledge suffering without becoming consumed by it. In the midst of crises they don’t “awful-ize” or “catastrophe-ize”, instead they can identify what gives their patients meaning in their lives and find a way to reveal to them what they still have inside that his not been lost.

My own journey into clown therapy came late in my career as a psychiatrist. I was middle-aged, and traditionally trained psychiatrist, before I met Patch Adams MD, perhaps the world’s most recognizable humanitarian clown. We were both speaking at a dental convention. I watched him get 40 dentists to dress-up and parade in public. Patch asked them to find things in their rooms to dress up in, and they appeared in bathrobes and lampshades, he gave them a clown nose and led these usually meticulous, exact, measured, detailed, organized doctors through the streets of a Colorado ski resort town. It made such an impression on me that I sought him out afterwards and that led to the start of a close family relationship.

A decade ago, at our annual family reunion at the Oregon Country Fair, I emerged as The Truth Fairy (see pictures), a pink ballerina in tights and tutu who invited people to talk with him for 3 minutes about an important question/issue/problem that they wanted answered…if they were ready to hear the truth. I sat in the middle of a meadow filled with hundreds of people, in a 10 x 10 roped off enclosure, with an empty chair facing me. People stood in line to spend… 3’ With The Truth Fairy; it turns out people will share the most intimate things because it’s completely anonymous, and you can choose to ignore whatever you hear. It gave me the opportunity to listen intently and trust my intuition to see something that was often funny and helpful.

We’ve expanded upon this model in the streets of Iquitos, Peru at the Belen Project where clown-clinicians from a dozen countries invite people to come and talk to them for 20 minutes about whatever concerns they might be having. In soccer fields, storefronts, and schoolyards, and marketplaces we have set up chairs, and seen people who want to talk. Often speaking through interpreters, we find these encounters have been profoundly impactful on both the people and the clinicians. They remind us that in the presence of traumas and disasters people can connect in ways that remind us of our shared humanity.

We have repeated these street clinics again and again, and find that making the heartfelt connections, and actively listening is an intimate therapeutic connection…and those are moments that make suffering bearable.

Carl A. Hammerschlag M.D.

Chief of Community Mental Health, Gesundheit! Institute


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Psychiatry and the Art of Listening, Clinical Psychiatry News, Nov. 2012

Global Outreach Project, Clinical Psychiatry News, Nov. 2013

3” With the Truth Fairy, Schlagbyte, Aug. 29, 21011

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