Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with John Scully

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John Scully

Am I Sane Yet? An Insider's Look at Mental Illness (Dundurn) by journalist and former Open Book Writer in Residence John Scully is an examination of practices, controversies and prejudices around mental health from a rarely examined viewpoint — the patient's.

Today John speaks with Open Book about the varying treatment he has received during his decades of experience in the mental health system, the politics of gifts shops and balancing humour with serious discussion.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Am I Sane Yet?: An Insider's Look at Mental Illness.

John Scully:

Am I Sane Yet? An Insider’s Look at Mental Illness is an autobiographical account of my journey though decades of mental illness. I am an international award-winning journalist who has held down jobs at the highest levels with some of the world’s leading broadcasters while suffering from major depression, PTSD and social anxiety. I have covered stories in over 75 countries and 36 war zones. I have attempted suicide and have been locked up in mental institutions seven times.

OB:

You've faced mental health issues for a long time. Why was this the right time to write this book?

JS:

I had been planning to write the book for some time but had to wait until I felt I was stable enough to meet the challenges of a journalistically responsible, informative book while maintaining a good sense of story-telling and a degree of humor.

OB:

Do you feel the conversation about mental health has changed in recent years? And how would you like to see it evolve from here?

JS:

I feel the conversation about mental health has improved a little in recent years but there is still a very long way to go especially in combating the appalling stigma that still surrounds mental illness. While every week in Canada there seems to be a run for cancer or a marathon for MS, I’ve yet to see one similar public fund- raising event for any form of mental illness. The dialogue is still muted and apparently hidden by shame and ignorance. Very few mental facilities have gift shops, mainly because patients receive so few visitors. There’s no demand for get-well cards, books or flowers. The few visitors who do come are generally close family members.

OB:

Having received care from mental health practitioners for some time, have you notice changing trends in how treatment is conducted? Can you tell us about some positive and negative experiences you've had with doctors and caregivers?

JS:

Treatment is still very much in the dark ages. There have been advances in medications and talk therapies, for example, but shock treatment (ECT) and its variations are still very commonly used. There is no magic bullet, not even a blood test that can diagnose any mental illness, so research lags way behind other illnesses. It often seems a good psychiatrist is a knowledgeable, sympathetic guesser and the bad ones dangerous villains. I had one who over-prescribed me with so much sleep medication that even he admitted he could have killed me. Another one adopted a therapy of merely staring silently at me for 30 minutes or so and each time I left his consulting room I was nearer suicide than ever. To this day I regard him as criminal. The best treatment I have received consistently has been at CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. There, health care providers listen, encourage patient and family participation in treatment and are cognizant of new drugs and talk therapies. But getting in is a problem. Funding shortages for mental health care has lead to impossible wait-lists.

OB:

People are sometimes surprised at the high prevalence of depression and anxiety amongst high-achieving people like you. Why do you think so many successful people suffer from these kinds of issues?

JS:

I think some of the reasons some high-achievers suffer depression and anxiety include a lack of awareness by peers and family doctors, a failure to treat the illnesses early on and events in childhood such as, in my case, a severe chronic case of asthma that kept me away from school and friends for months at a time.

OB:

What was the most pleasurable aspect of writing this book? What did you find most challenging?

JS:

I wouldn’t say writing the book was pleasurable but as a journalist I felt I had an obligation to open the door wider on mental illness, especially suicide, depression and anxiety. The most challenging aspect was to make it readable, entertaining and even funny at times, while recognizing the deadly serious nature of the topic. I tried to accomplish these goals by using extensive anecdotes with a parallel yet integral story of my eventful career.

OB:

What are some of your favourite fiction or non-fiction books that touch on themes of mental illness?

JS:

The books I read about mental illness are usually instructive-type manuals about medications and therapies. Two of the latter include The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns, MD and Mindfulness-Based CBT for Depression by Segal, Williams and Teasdale.

OB:

What are you working on now?

JS:

I am working on two novels, neither of which has anything to do with mental illness.


Journalist John Scully has covered stories in over 70 countries and 35 war zones. He has suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for much of that time. Scully is the author of Am I Dead Yet: A Journalist's Perspective on Terror. He lives in Toronto.

For more information about Am I Sane Yet? please visit the Dundurn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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