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The Last Taboo: A Survival Guide to Mental Health Care in Canada

by Scott Simmie and Julia Nunes

When veteran journalist Scott Simmie suffered a nervous breakdown after a prolonged manic episode, he got a first-hand look at the Canadian mental health care system and the ongoing stigma of being labelled “crazy.” Friends disappeared, job offers dried up, and a polite but crippling wall of silence from colleagues hobbled what was already a long, painful recovery process. Simmie eventually turned his experiences into an award-winning series of articles on the plight of the mentally ill, and from those articles comes The Last Taboo, a comprehensive guide to the minefield that is mental illness and the various support systems available to its victims.

Authored with life-partner and fellow journalist Julia Nunes, The Last Taboo is broken down into sections that focus on specific aspects of mental illness, including medication, diagnosis, and alternatives to traditional psychiatric treatments. Interspersed with these fact-based chapters are personal testimonials, the most harrowing, and at times hilarious, of which is Simmie’s own story. He perfectly captures the impenetrable but seemingly rational logic of the manic “high,” where a snap decision to drop a successful journalism career to import antique Chinese furniture makes perfect sense from the inside. In this section more than any other, the authors demonstrate that behind the outward symptoms of the disease resides a recognizable human soul.

Unfortunately, the authorial voice loses much of its passion and humour in the analytical chapters. This is partially understandable, given the sheer range of material to be be covered in such a comprehensive guide. But the problem is compounded by a tendency to adopt an overly “objective” stance toward a field of study and practice rife with wildly conflicting opinions and frequent cases of systemic abuse. The authors acknowledge, for instance, that most GPs are not properly trained to diagnose or treat mental illness, yet counsel readers not to seek treatment without first consulting their doctor.

That being said, the authors do not shy away from questioning the medical and sociological orthodoxies that too often dehumanize consumers of the mental health system. In doing so, they make an impassioned and reasoned argument that until the mentally ill are fully integrated into society, no amount of wonder drugs and therapy will reduce their staggeringly high numbers.