Words Count: Learning How to Discuss Mental Illness

What we call mental illness can sometimes be a skill

Try as I might to be impeccable with my words, there are times when they fail me so utterly I consider changing professions… something where context, precision and nuance don’t matter. Where two syllables won’t make a person feel degraded, or devalued. Ditch-digger might do.

Last week was one of those times.

I called rapid-cycling bipolar a disease in my EDGE YK editor’s note.

It’s not. Laura Bain, who lives with bipolar and considers herself a bridge between the often-misunderstood worlds of people with mental illness, and the community of people who support them, was deeply offended by this.

Because she has somewhat bravely added this role of bridge, or teacher, in this area to her other titles: sailor, windsurfer, friend, auntie, scientist, registered nurse… she came to me with hopes of furthering the discussion, and the understanding.


“The important thing is that people are people first, so I’m Laura, first and foremost, and I live with bipolar, I live with a mental illness, I’m not infected by bipolar. I don’t have a disease that is something that needs to be removed from my body,” she explained.

She asked me why I chose the word disease. In my mind, any illness — whether an infection, hay fever, cancer, a chemical imbalance of the brain — is a state of dis-ease, a blockage in flow that sets up a speed bump between someone and their optimal health.

Simplistic, yes. And Laura sees it quite differently.

“I don’t know where my mental illness begins or ends and where Laura begins and ends,” she said.

“It’s not all positive, but I don’t think it’s all negative either.There was a comic who framed it that he lived with a mental illness, but it’s also a mental skillness. There are certain skills that he has because of, or in spite of, his mental illness and I would say that’s so true for me. I have a capacity to be empathetic because I have lived through some dark times and I have a capacity to be full of joy because certain times of the year I am hypomanic to the extreme and have amazing creativity, so there are positives to it.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada defines Laura’s condition as a disorder: “Bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depression), is a bio-chemical condition that results in an imbalance of the neurotransmitters in the brain. Genetic makeup is thought to play a role, but so too are environmental pressures such as your family, work and social environment, stress, injury, illness and hormone imbalance.”

Laura explored many of these facets of living with bipolar in a frank and honest piece that appears in this issue of EDGE YK  magazine. It’s her sophomore follow up to a Tedx Talk she did four years ago on the subject, and the response to the article has been overwhelming.

“It’s been insane. It’s been great,” she said. “This whole last week I’ve been having conversations in the weirdest places. People who I’ve barely known their name are saying, ‘So I read your article… then it gets to a really neat place, then it goes to, ‘You know I’ve never really told anyone this before, but I really struggle with anxiety, or I get depressed sometimes, and thank you.’ That’s been Yellowknife’s response to me, it’s been just a warm embrace really.”

Laura’s father, who she describes as having no mood instability whatsoever, told her on one of her dark days that everyone is a little mentally ill, and that’s OK.

“It was just such a truth,” she said. “So if we can start from that base, rather than they’re sick, they’re crazy, they’re whatever… we’re all a little unwell at times, it’s more of a spectrum that way.”

To Laura for all she’s taught me, I say thank you. Let’s keep working to remove the stigma of mental illness. Let’s keep this discussion going. What are your thoughts?



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