‘No substitute for human connection’: An inside look at coping with severe mental illness

After volunteering with psychiatric patients for a decade, a Canadian author is calling for more non-medical interventions to help people with schizophrenia.

Susan Doherty visited dozens of people with severe mental illness at Montreal’s largest psychiatric hospital, the Douglas Institute, ahead of writing her second book The Ghost Garden.

“The joys of helping others in need are limitless, there is simply no substitute for human connection,” Doherty told CTV’s Your Morning.

“The fear factor around this condition, this illness, this disease, it’s so isolating and so lonely for people and we are all human beings.

“That’s my main message, that we need to connect with everyone, not just you and I who aren’t symptomatic. “

The burden on families with a member suffering from schizophrenia is great, Doherty said, and burnout for health professionals is also a factor.

“I’m proposing that more non-medical volunteers shoulder the weight of the responsibility because the burnout factor for family members is incalculable,” the Montreal-based writer said.

The non-fiction narrative focuses on the character Caroline Evans, who is based on a real-life friend Doherty has known since 1967.

In her 20s, the friend started having ‘inexplicable behaviours,’ was hospitalized and suffered multiple bouts of depression.

“If we were to not let those symptoms define a person, they’re still a loving caring person who wants to live with purpose,” Doherty said.

“We as a society have put a frost fence around them (those with schizophrenia) and cut them off and they live far far outside the boundaries of human acceptance and that’s wrong and that needs to change.”

Evans, who believed she could save her roommate from the devil by pouring boiling water into her ear, gave the author complete access to her medical files and court records.

“It wasn’t until she committed a crime that she was given the diagnosis of schizophrenia,” Doherty said.

Her book features 20 stories of real people living with the isolation and loneliness of schizophrenia.

“People think that individuals are psychotic all the time, they are not, “ Doherty told CTV’s Your Morning.

“If I’m meeting someone who is delusional or saying things that you and I might think were wrong, ten or 15 minutes later of looking them in the eye and being a listening post, they can generally come down out of their psychosis and just have a normal conversation.

“I want to say to people we’ve to look beyond the delusions and find the human being underneath.”

‘The Ghost Garden, Inside The Lives of Schizophrenia’s Feared and Forgotten,’ is published by Penguin Random House.

Doherty’s debut novel ‘A Secret Music,’ was released in 2015.