Metro Morning

Unexplained disappearance of woman may be linked to psychosis, family fears

Last February, Shannon Sullivan abruptly disappeared. Her family and friends are left wondering how they missed the signs that Sullivan may have been experiencing symptoms of psychosis for months before she vanished.

After vanishing from Toronto 7 months ago, Shannon Sullivan has been spotted in Europe

In 2008, Shannon Sullivan (front right) and her friend Nadine Blum (beside her), were embarking on their careers and meeting regularly for brunch with other friends who’d recently graduated from university. (Nadine Blum)

Shannon Sullivan and Nadine Blum first bonded over a lab experiment at McMaster University.  

In the late '90s when they were in the same pharmacology program, the therapeutic benefits of chocolate were making headlines. Blum says they were both "huge chocolate fans," so they designed an experiment involving the analysis of antioxidants in chocolate, which included frequent trips to the lab fridge to check their samples. "For freshness, of course," says Blum with an understated humour she and Sullivan shared.

Today, Blum wonders how she missed the signs that her friend, now 39 years old, may have been experiencing symptoms of psychosis in the months before she disappeared.

On Feb. 28, Sullivan's employer, a large pharmaceutical company in Mississauga, Ont., called Blum, who was listed as Sullivan's emergency contact, to let her know that Sullivan had been missing from work for two weeks.

Unwashed dishes were left in Sullivan’s sink. Family photos of Shannon’s much-loved nieces and nephews were displayed throughout her apartment. (David Donnelly/CBC)

When Blum entered her friend's abandoned condo on Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto, it looked as though Sullivan would return at any moment — unwashed dishes in the sink, a load of unfinished laundry, even her iPad, laptop and phone were left behind.

Meanwhile, Sullivan's siblings in Saint John were becoming alarmed after receiving some uncharacteristic emails from her, including one to her sister with the subject heading, "I sadly, desperately need some help," in which Sullivan writes that she's in Belgium, out of money and needing help to get a flight home.

Sullivan's family called Toronto police, who seized Sullivan's electronic devices. One of Sullivan's brothers took over paying her mortgage and condo fees. Another brother, Terence, flew to Toronto from Saint John to meet with Toronto police and speak to his sister's circle of friends and acquaintances.

Sullivan's family hopes a poster will help in their search to find her. (Terence Sullivan)

Terence discovered more red flags signalling that his sister might be seriously ill, including emails to her employer questioning whether people are who they say they are and hesitating to leave voicemails in case of a trap.

"Early on, you look back and you say had we known for certain it was mental illness, we would have done things differently," he told CBC Toronto.

"However, Shannon's never had a history of mental illness. She's always been a very responsible, very meticulous professional, intelligent, caring and well-liked. So to put the pieces together and to go public with something … well, we're not sure. Is this mental illness? Is this not mental illness?"

Sullivan left country voluntarily: police

Meanwhile, the investigation by Toronto police had turned up few leads, beyond three sightings of Sullivan in Europe last spring.

In February, police in Amsterdam asked Sullivan to move a rented car that she had abandoned. In April, police in Marseille, France, said that Sullivan had walked into a police station to report her purse and passport had been stolen. Sullivan is listed on Interpol as a missing person, which will trigger a report at most airports if she tries to clear customs.

The family asked Toronto police to get a search warrant, hoping that Shannon's bank accounts might reveal more clues, but without an official diagnosis of mental illness or evidence of criminal activity, the courts won't issue one.

Police will only say that she left the country voluntarily and that they believe she is currently in Europe.

In Toronto, her brother was learning from her colleagues at work and her condo neighbours that they'd found her reclusive and difficult to get to know.

But the bookshelves lining her condo walls offered a mute contrast, with a wide range of novels, autobiographies and travel books suggesting a woman with a broad range of interests and a lively, curious mind.

Terence Sullivan believes that psychosis is behind his sister's disappearance. 'This is a tragedy for someone who was so loving and kind and responsible, for this to happen.' (David Donnelly/CBC)

Looking back, Terence says he can see warning signs. Although his sister sent warm Christmas texts to her parents and all her siblings during a trip to South America, she hadn't been to New Brunswick to visit in several years.

Recent texts to her sister, Moira, revealed other uncharacteristic behaviour — some of them accusatory and hostile, or about conversations in which she believed she overheard people talking about her — unlike the modest, reserved woman they knew.

If Sullivan is seriously ill, said Dr. Sean Kidd, clinical psychologist and scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, her family, like many others, can be left feeling helpless.  

"Certainly in the early stages before the family and the person understands what's happening, they can be at a complete loss about how to make sense of the behaviour," Kidd said.

It's rare for people with psychosis to disappear, Kidd said, but many people with severe mental illness withdraw and become increasingly isolated. As they become overwhelmed and lose the ability to engage with the world, it's a form of disappearance, he said.

Sullivan’s shelves are crowded with hundreds of books by acclaimed novelists like Ian McEwan and Orhan Pamuk, science fiction, autobiographies and travel books. 'If they were on her shelves,' says Terence Sullivan, 'she read them. Guaranteed. They’re a treasure, a testament.' (David Donnelly/CBC)

Psychosis tends to wax and wane, Kidd said, making it possible for some people to manage how they appear to other people until it finally becomes too difficult to keep up the pretence of being fine.

Often there is little families can do except wait for the right moment to intervene, he said.

Dr. Sean Kidd, clinical psychologist and scientist at CAMH, says Sullivan's family needs to have a plan in place the moment they hear from anyone with new information. (CAMH)

Regarding Sullivan's disappearance, "It's not been a tremendously long time in the scheme of things for a resourceful young woman, especially if she's put some money aside," Kidd said.

"It's definitely worth keeping up the hope and alerting everyone in their network, even acquaintances. It could be a more remote acquaintance that is the first person she reaches out to. So you want everyone to have a system where the second you hear from her, you text, get in touch, and think through a path back."

It can take months and even years for a severe mental psychosis to run its course, warned Kidd, making it difficult for family members waiting to hear from someone who doesn't believe they have an illness.

"It's often a game of patience," said Kidd, and "a difficult version of grief, a narrative of your loved one that has come apart."

Sullivan's apartment is filled with framed photos of her family, most of whom live in Saint John. Looking back, her brother wonders if the fact that she hadn't come home for a visit in the past couple of years was a warning signal. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Sullivan's brother Terence has his suitcase packed at all times, under his bed, ready to fly anywhere in the world should he get a call that his sister has been found. 

In October, he will travel to Europe hoping to meet every person who had any contact with her, from the clerk who rented a car to her in Amsterdam to the officer at the police station in Marseille, to the official at Global Affairs at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, who calls the family almost every month.

The family struggled with whether to publicly connect their sister's disappearance to the possibility of psychosis.

"We know Shannon is not functioning," said Terence. "She's always been responsible, paid her bills."

He believes mental illness explains his sister's disappearance. "This is a tragedy for someone who was so loving and kind and responsible, for this to happen."

If anyone has information about Shannon Sullivan, the family would like to be contacted directly at the following email: