The Current

You can help people with schizophrenia by looking past the delusion, says writer

Susan Doherty has been volunteering to help people with severe mental illness for more than a decade. She's written about what she's learned in her new book The Ghost Garden: Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia's Feared and Forgotten.

Susan Doherty is calling for greater emphasis on patient's humanity

Susan Doherty has written about volunteering to help people with severe mental illness in her new book, The Ghost Garden: Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia's Feared and Forgotten. (Penguin Random House)
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We are misinformed as a society about what schizophrenia really is, according to a writer who volunteers with patients with mental health issues.

"We think that people who have schizophrenia are violent, that if you're with them they're going to pull a knife out of their back pocket and stab you," said Susan Doherty, who has written two books about mental illness.

She told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that she has made connections with people just by sitting for coffee and listening, "even if a person is psychotic or delusional or telling me crazy things."

"If you dismiss the delusion and look for the emotion that's underneath the delusion, you can reach anybody," she said.

"There is a human being underneath the terrible symptoms of extreme mental illness."

The World Health Organization estimates that about one in a hundred people deal with symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia, including hearing voices, delusional ideas, and constant feelings of being watched. Doherty has spent the last decade volunteering with mental health patients at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal.

She explained that spending time with patients in public has shown her "a lot of stigma firsthand."

"I try very, very hard to normalize every situation," she said. "They are my friends, they deserve to be treated the way I am treated."

Doherty has written about many of the people she's met in her new book, The Ghost Garden: Inside the Lives of Schizophrenia's Feared and Forgotten, using aliases to protect their privacy.

The book begins with the story of one patient, Caroline Evans, who Doherty has known since they were in elementary school together.

She explained that Evans began showing signs of schizophrenia in high school, and was hospitalized later in life.

During one of her hospital stays, Evans befriended a woman who Doherty refers to as Hillary. The pair agreed to find an apartment together once they left the psychiatric unit.

People suffering from psychosis can end up isolated from family and friends, Doherty said. (Shutterstock)

But once they moved in, the stress of living independently got to Evans, and "she began to hear a voice that told her that the devil was living inside of Hillary."

When those thoughts continued for weeks, she went to the hospital.

"Unfortunately she was turned away by a nurse, or whoever was the admitting staff member at the hospital," Doherty recalled.

"And she walked back home and poured boiling water in her roommate's ear, because she heard voices telling her that the devil lived in Hillary's ear."

Violence is 'preventable'

Hillary suffered severe burns and a loss of hearing, but Doherty said she did not include the story to compound the idea that people suffering from mental illness have violent tendencies.

"The rates of violence amongst psychotic individuals is the same as the general population," she said.

"It's just that we remember the two planes that crashed, we remember the two killings — we remember because, you know, the media trumps up."

On its website, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says that "there is a relationship between psychosis illness and violence — but many people with psychotic illness, most of the time, present no increased risk to others."

Without support, people suffering from mental illness can end up living on the streets. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Doherty added that she wanted to tell the story of Caroline's violent act in order to highlight that it was preventable.

"We don't have a good enough mechanism to help these people before there is an incident that is so calamitous, that affects so many other people, that just perpetuates the fear mongering and the violence."

She thinks the work she does as a volunteer is critical because it takes some of the pressure off families and medical staff.

I have seen broken people who are mended by friendship.- Susan Doherty, author

"I can be the fairy godmother and I can spend a couple of hours with someone, two or three times a week, and just share the load," she said.

"I'm just advocating for more non-medical personnel on the ground."

She'd like to see "a seismic shift in resources away from the medication model towards helping and humanity," she said.

"I have seen broken people who are mended by friendship."

If you are concerned about your own mental health or that of someone else, you can find information and a number to contact on the CAMH website.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Karin Marley.

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