Storytelling beyond the socially acceptable

Project highlights reality of living with bipolar disorder

Kelsey James’ final year project in Creative Communications at Red River College was driven by the desire to shine light on an experience that often gets left out of conversations regarding mental illness.

“I feel like the focus of campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk Day is on more socially acceptable mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, but totally leaves things like psychosis or illnesses like bipolar out of the conversation,” she says.

Megan Linton, a member of UWSAccess, a student group that advocates for disability justice, feels corporations like Bell aren’t interested in including neurodivergent forms of mental illness in their campaigns because they are less palatable.

“They don’t want any liability by talking about anything that’s even moderately scary,” Linton says. “They also don’t want to talk about things that make people
homeless, or make people live under the poverty line, because that’s not as aesthetically pleasing.”

James, however, isn’t afraid of talking about her own experiences with mental illness.

“Bipolar disorder is an illness that I have, so I was more passionate about writing about it, and I feel that also lended a little more credibility to what I was writing about.”

The stories from James’ journalism project, Out of the Fire, take on a more non-fiction feel, as opposed to the less conversational, traditional style of reporting, which is something James strived to achieve.

“I felt like I could have more creative freedom that way,” she says. “If you’re writing for a publication or a news outlet, you have to follow their guidelines. I also didn’t want to be totally objective. Even though I know that’s what journalism is, I don’t think I always agree with that.”

She feels that hearing the experiences of people living with mental illness first-hand is a more effective way of reducing stigma surrounding mental illness than relying on doctors or politicians for information.

“The system is flawed, and we know that. There’s enough reporting out there on that,” James says. “I wanted it to be more of a storytelling series, where people share their experiences, feel empowered and inspire others to talk about mental illness.”

James also interviewed her mother for Out of the Fire. Exploring the dynamic between a mother and child who live with the same mental illness was something that she wasn’t seeing in other reporting.

“I know it was hard for her to be open, especially talking to her daughter about it. It made me understand her a bit more, and in turn her understand me, because we were both experiencing the same things,” James says.

James hoped that being transparent with her own experiences with bipolar disorder would encourage her subjects to feel comfortable sharing their own.

Speaking candidly about the reality of mental illness isn’t something some people living with them are used to. Giving her subjects a platform to share their stories proved to be invaluable for both the sources and for James.

“One of the women I interviewed said to me, ‘This is my first time telling anyone what I’ve been through.’ She was able to see herself in my experiences, too,” she says. “She learnt that her symptoms aren’t only her symptoms, and she said it made her feel less alone. I think that was one of the best things that was said to me throughout the project.”

Published in Volume 72, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 29, 2018)

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