Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.3

October 9, 2003


Journalists write and lecture about going crazy

by Sylvain Comeau

“It’s funny; you break your leg, you get all the support in the world. You blow your mind, people shun you,” said journalist and author Scott Simmie. “Besides Julia, and some friends and family members who stuck with me, all I had was a new label: I was mentally ill.”

Simmie and his common-law wife, journalist Julia Nunes, struggled with mental illness for years — he as a sufferer, she as a big part of his support system, trying to drag him back from the brink. Today, they are the co-authors of best-selling books on mental illness, The Last Taboo and Beyond Crazy. Through their books and public lectures, they are working to remove the stigma from mental illness. Both spoke in a joint lecture at Concordia on October 2.

“The stigma extends to family members too; I remember the day that Scott’s story was published in the Toronto Star,” Nunes said. After his recovery from manic depression, Simmie wrote a multi-part series called ‘My Incredible Voyage into Madness and Back,’ which was featured on the front page.

“The reaction I got in the newsroom was total silence; they all just looked away.” With one brave exception: “One woman came up to me and said, ‘I read Scott’s story; that’s just terrible for both of you.’ I just burst into tears. That was what I needed to hear, that somebody cared.”

Simmie had no history of mental illness before his mental breakdown. After covering the war in Chechnya, he had what was later described as a manic episode that cost him his job as the CBC’s Moscow bureau chief. The couple went for a vacation to Asia, where his mania got worse. For days, he barely slept, suffered from delusions and pursued wild plans and schemes with frantic energy. Nunes was run ragged trying to keep up with him and keep him out of trouble.

Back in Canada, the couple was broke, because Simmie had spent all their savings on an improbable business idea (“I thought I was going to be the world’s greatest entrepreneur…I was like [success guru] Tony Robbins on speed”), and his career was in a shambles. Both of them endured Simmie’s up-and-down bouts of mania and depression, and, as is often the case, the victim himself did not believe he was ill.

“A doctor told me that convincing him that he was sick and needed help was going to be the hardest part of his recovery,” Nunes said. “He was right.”

But even after he entered treatment, Simmie encountered another roadblock. He says that the stigma of mental illness is the worst part, worse than the often debilitating symptoms themselves.

“The stigma was the most agonizing aspect of the disorder; it cost me friendships, career opportunities, and, most importantly, my self-esteem. It wasn’t long before I began internalizing the attitudes of others, viewing myself as a lesser person.”

Simmie had a revelation one day during his ordeal, when he realized that some of his friends were still treating him the same.

“They ignored the label; they still wanted to go to a movie and have a coffee. They still saw me. Suddenly I thought, if they’re still seeing me, what are these other people seeing, the ones in the hallways who don’t look at me, or turn their heads? They were seeing a myth. That realization was the best of all, because the stigma wasn’t my fault anymore; it was theirs.”

The couple noted that Simmie is usually asked to deliver lectures alone, without his co-author. That common oversight highlights one of the messages of their books: that if the mentally ill don’t always get adequate support, their family and friends get little or none.

“No doctor, psychiatrist, social or mental health worker ever said that I could or would make a difference in Scott’s recovery,” Nunes recalled. “No one ever told me I mattered in any way whatsoever. I just wasn’t on the radar screen. And yet, I know that my role was an important one; it’s that way for every caring family member. If I had left Scott because I wasn’t getting the support I needed, it would have taken him longer to recover.”

“I think a strong mental health system is one that acknowledges this fact, and helps treat mental disorder in part by helping family members as well.”

The lecture was the annual Hans Low-Beer Memorial Lecture for 2003. It was presented by AMI Quebec (Alliance for the Mentally Ill) in co-operation with the Department of Psychology.