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For this comedian, laughter and lithium are the best medicine

Big Daddy Tazz

Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/THE GLOBE AND

As someone who suffers from bipolar disorder, Big Daddy Tazz has been treated with lithium, a drug that he notes "made me gain 40 pounds, lose all my hair and killed my sex drive.

"But are you happy?" he asks rhetorically.

"For a fat, bald, flaccid guy, I seem to be doing okay."

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The self-deprecating jokes are the stock and trade of the Winnipeg comic (whose real name is Tazz Norris). But humour is not just the way he makes a living, it's the key to his recovery from severe mental illness.

"Comedy is the best therapy ever," Tazz says. "They say laughter is the best medicine and they're right - but lithium is pretty powerful too."

As a child, Tazz, who is "physically 42 and mentally 15ish," suffered a host of mental-health and learning challenges, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and dyslexia.

Yet, it wasn't until he was 27, after increasingly wild cycles of depression and mania and a handful of suicide attempts, that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Still, Tazz did not get treatment for seven more years. He was concerned how others would perceive him, but, mostly, he worried that the treatment would interfere with his creativity and make him less funny.

When he "came out" in 2001, he talked openly about his illness and found his calling as the "Bipolar Buddha."

The good news: "I'm a lot funnier now - and a lot healthier too."

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Humour went from being a mask Tazz wore to hide his pain to a way to make the pain disappear.

"For me, comedy is a way of getting rid of the garbage in my head because the meds don't always work," he says.

While he jokes a lot about drugs, cognitive behaviour therapy has been key to his recovery. So has his advocacy.

But not everyone in the mental-health community appreciates his approach.

June Conway-Beeby, a long-time activist with the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario whose son, Matthew, committed suicide because of mental illness, says Tazz's jokes leave her cold.

"Laughing at the symptoms of serious illness seems irrational to me, maybe because of the horror of the disease behind the actions.

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"To me, it's like laughing at the uncanny high-pitched screams of a torture victim," she says.

Ms. Conway-Beeby says that while comics say they are combatting the stigma surrounding mental illness, she is not convinced they are not actually making things worse by making light of the severity of untreated mental illness.

"In my world, there's nothing funny about schizophrenia or other severe mental illness. Joking seems a betrayal of the suffering of the sick."

David Granirer, founder of Stand Up for Mental Health, a group that teaches people with severe mental illness to become stand-up comics, says he is conscious of the criticism, but he insists that the comedy is respectful, not harmful.

"We never, ever belittle people with mental illness," he says. "People don't make fun of others, they talk about their own experiences as a way of building confidence and fighting stigma."

Mr. Granirer, who suffers from severe depression, says comedy is an effective educational tool. "A lot of people don't want to go to an academic presentation on mental health because it's a downer. After our shows, they feel hopeful, and they've learned something too."

Stand Up for Mental Health, which offers workshops in a number of Canadian cities, is "therapy that doesn't feel like therapy," Mr. Granirer says.

The comedy shows also shatter stereotypes, allowing the public to see mental illness - and recovery - through a different prism.

"The stereotype about people with mental illness is that we're going to hit you up for spare change or kill you," Mr. Granirer says. "But what you see at our shows is people who are funny and engaging. It's impactful."

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