WATCHING the hilarious Australian comedian Felicity Ward perform, it's hard to imagine she's been afflicted by debilitating depression and panic attacks. Even though I know depression is one of the big themes of her new show, it surprises me when she mentions, midway through a perky quip-riddled interview, that yesterday had been a “very bad day", "awful", which "felt like it was never going to pass".

But 36-year-old Ward isn’t hiding her mental health issues. Within minutes of the opening of her show, which stages at the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival on World Mental Health Day tomorrow, she mentions that she has an anxiety disorder.

The show's title, 50% More Likely To Die, was prompted by “meaningless” mental health statistics, and Ward's routines include lines like: “A lot of people would not guess that I had anxiety. Worms, maybe. You’d be right I have had worms. I’ve had both. So right on the money there.” And: “I’ve also had depression. Well, I was actually diagnosed with evolving depression. And it’s just nice to have a doctor who believes in you, you know.”

Ward's first panic attack happened in 2009, just as she was really breaking through as a comedian – a career the former hospitality worker embarked on in her late 20s, having been encouraged to get onstage by singer Ali McGregor, wife of Australian comedian Adam Hills. Caught in the flow of a hectic schedule of flights, stage performances and panel show appearances, she was waiting backstage before a gig in Adelaide when she started to feel “a nervous energy come up”.

Thinking it was just familiar pre-performance anxiety, she walked around and tried breathing techniques, talking to people and standing up against a wall. “I was trying everything and it was getting worse," she tells me. "I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know what this is.' Then I got side-stage and they were about to call me and it was the worst it had been.”

Onstage, the feeling didn’t pass. For half the short three-minute set, Ward's brain was telling her: “Get offstage. Get offstage. This is the worst stage you’ve been on.”

But it was in Edinburgh, while performing at the Fringe in 2010, that things got so bad, she decided to seek a diagnosis. Every show would commence with a 10-minute panic-attack; she would go onstage convinced she was going to wet herself; she wore two pairs of pants and a pair of leggings underneath her stage trousers because of her fear of needing to go to the toilet. “That was the bad one," she recalls. "It was from exhaustion. I had only been a stand-up for two years, and at that stage you still think every job is your last, so you take every job. Also I was in a long-term relationship and he had moved to Australia two days before I had to go away on tour. There were a lot of stressful things.”

Remarkably, Ward has managed to turn all this into comedy. The relationship between her gut and her anxiety led to Ward's acclaimed 2015 exploration of her irritable bowel syndrome, What If There Is No Toilet? Lavatorial issues are something she sees as a “good entry point to talk about mental illness”, since, as she points out, everyone uses the toilet “even if they aren’t comfortable initially talking about the idea”.

“Sometimes it felt almost more taboo talking about toilets and IBS [irritable bowel syndrome] than it did about mental illness," she adds. "Before I did the show I remember people get really grossed out when I talked about IBS and I used to make a joke. I’d say, ‘Don’t judge me. It’s a f***ing syndrome. It’s the way my body is designed’.”

Ward has a holistic view on the workings of the body and believes the gut plays a strong role in mental illness. “I only found out recently that 90 per cent of serotonin levels are stored in cells in the intestine," she says. "If all your serotonin is stored there, and, after the brain, most of the nerves in your whole body are in the intestines, why don’t we talk about them together?”

Ward's comedic mental health awareness campaign began in earnest two years ago when she made the documentary Felicity’s Mental Mission for Australian television. In it she talks to other comedians about their anxieties, speaks with young people afflicted with depression – and even challenges herself to ride on a stunt plane. It’s an entertaining examination of a subject that can be all too gloomy. In one scene, Ward and another comedian friend talk about their mental health, then suddenly start making fart jokes, saying: “Make light of everything.”

The film also examines her childhood experience. Ward is unsure how long she has suffered from anxiety. “I used to have IBS attacks when I was 12 or 13, but it’s been only looking back on it I assumed that was linked up with anxiety.”

In the film, she waits at a bus stop recalling how as a teenager travelling on the school bus, she'd sit feeling trapped, worrying that she'd need the toilet and have an accident. Then she sits with her family round a table as they try to trace the roots of her anxiety. Her mother mentions a teacher who made Ward’s life a misery. “I had to call mum down to the school a number of times because he’d humiliated me and I’d started crying,” she recalls.

Ward grew up in a working-class household in the small tourist town of Killcare in New South Wales. One day, her mother got talking to the local psychic, who said her daughter wouldn't come into success "until her later years” and that she had “a porcelain heart”.

Ward has always related to that image. “That’s always stuck with me. Because I feel everything. On the one hand that means I get to experience immense joy and really deep happiness, and I think I have childlike wonder. Really childish things bring me immense pleasure – just watching dogs chasing each other round the park. But on the flip side of that, I feel disappointment like I have a tractor on my chest.”

In this year’s show, 50% More Likely To Die, she mentions her anxiety disorder but pulls back from making it the focus of the show, instead telling a tale of how she left her bag on a London bus during rush hour. Ward has her causes – feminism and mental health – but she integrates them lightly. After all, she’s onstage to make people laugh. Her shows are for everyone – not just those who already identify as having mental health problems.

“I don’t really care about ‘creating awareness’ of mental illness," she once said. "What the show creates is a place that people can come and for an hour not feel like they’re a freak.”

In fact, Ward hasn’t had a panic attack on stage for years, though a few weeks ago she had what she calls “the little red flag”, the beginnings of that feeling.

Ward used to "make deals" with her anxiety. On one occasion, she felt it rising it rising within her and said to it: "I’m going to do my job. You can come with me if you like. Or if you want to, stay here. But either way I’m going to do 10 minutes of standup comedy. You decide what you want to do." The anxiety, she recalls, immediately dissipated.

But she doesn’t make those deals any more. Rather she mostly allows her anxiety to surface onstage: "It’s like, when you get stuck in a rip in the ocean, you’re supposed to swim across it," she says. "You don’t swim against it. It was kind of like doing that with my anxiety. I’m still being dragged a little bit, but I’m making my way out rather than trying to go directly against it.”

Ward is in a comparatively good place right now, living with a “supportive and unconditionally loving” partner, though this, she jokes, is “just not what you want”. “When you’re in the throes of it, you’re like, 'I hate me, so I don’t want you to love me'.” However, her partner, she says, is “just great”. “He used to be in music, so he knows about an unsociable working schedule, but now he’s got a normal job. He’s a project manager. He uses phrases like 'online platforms' and I’m not entirely sure what he does.”

But it’s still not easy. Depression has been “more vocal and present” than anxiety, and it was particularly bad last year, when she floored by a winter spent in the UK. “I didn’t realise the effect that the British winter was having on me. Sometimes I wouldn’t leave the house for two or three days.” Doing gigs would “save” her, forcing her to get out of the house when she didn’t want to and pushing her into spending “an hour where I have to think about someone else”.

Ward often feels weary of the illness. “I think, ‘Oh I’m better now. I don’t want to do this any more. I’m going to be normal now.”

But she finds that’s not how it happens; that sometimes, she gets worse rather than better. And this acknowledgement too is part of her disarming honesty.

Sometimes, particularly after the toilet show, people would come up and tell her that it was a relief to find someone who felt the way they did. Three weeks ago, someone who had seen her show in Australia told her that they had been to see their GP because of it.

“I love being a spokesperson,” she quips of her depression: “It’s so nice to be an expert on something.”

But at the same time, she clearly has mixed feelings about it. Mental health may be her cause and theme, but it’s not all there is to Ward’s comedy. “Sometimes I talk about anxiety on stage and it makes me feel better. I feel I have more acceptance about it, or it makes me feel more connected to the community, like I’m talking about something that matters to me. Then other times I’m just like, I wish I was making a d*** joke.”

Felicity Ward performs 50% More Likely To Die on World Mental Health Day tomorrow at the CCA, Glasgow at 8pm. The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival includes more than 300 events across Scotland

What's so funny about mental illness? ?

By Andrew Eaton-Lewis

There's a big difference between jokes about mental illness and jokes that put down someone with mental illness. That has a lot to do with who is telling the joke, as well as how it's told. All of the comedians on the bill of this year's Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival's (SMHAFF) year – Felicity, Susan Calman, Chris Gethard, Richard Gadd, and Martha McBrier – were talking from personal experience, and that's really important.

We're thrilled to have Felicity on the programme in this, our 10th year programme. She's hosted our Gala for Mental Health at the Edinburgh Fringe for two years now and is the main reason for the success of that show.

I saw Felicity's show What If There Is No Toilet on the final night of its sell-out Fringe run in 2015. It was obviously an emotional night for her. She was talking about something quite raw and uncomfortable and getting a huge response. Which is why she decided to do it again this year.

One moment really summed up that show for me. She described having a panic attack on her birthday and having to be physically restrained by her boyfriend. She said she was like one of those inflatable figures you see outside car showrooms, and flailed about on stage to demonstrate it. It was extraordinary – hilarious, upsetting, moving, cartoonish, and really human and relatable, all at the same time. That takes a lot of skill.

Felicity's not using talking about mental illness as an opportunity to show off a darker, more serious side. She just thinks it's funny, and so it just becomes another thing to joke about, along with TV shows or losing your bag on a bus. That normalises it, which is exactly what we're trying to do with SMHAFF.

I read a report last year that suggested TV soap opera characters have been particularly effective at breaking down mental health stigma, because the person going through a tough time is someone we already have a long relationship with. They're not defined by their mental illness. It really helps get across the fact that mental ill-health can happen to anyone. I think comedy works the same way – standup comedians are people we feel we have a relationship with. When someone like Felicity opens up about mental health problems it's easy to feel empathy because it's someone you already like and care about.

Andrew Eaton-Lewis is arts lead of the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival