Brian Callahan on Writing ‘The Mental’

A new novel by Brian Callahan utilizes humour and sensitivity to bravely tackle the harsh realities of mental illness 


Knowing the very talented Brian Callahan as a gifted journalist, it’s easy for excitement to build while cradling his first novel, Growing up Next to the Mental. Great expectations, as the saying goes. Callahan doesn’t disappoint, in fact he exceeds expectations, but best of all? As the life and times of the central character, Aloysius ‘Wish’ Mooney, unfolds, it’s quickly apparent that much of this yarn isn’t tall at all – becoming more of a tell-all than a tall tale. 

Right Next Door 

Callahan smiles. “Maybe it should be a memoir,” he admits somewhat sheepishly as he begins painting a colourful picture of his unique childhood.

“We did in fact grow up next to the Mental. Right next door, in fact. The very first scene; the boy finding the patient in the water – true story. That happened to me when I was four years old,” he shares. 

That experience – of finding a patient who had wandered away from the Waterford Hospital, dead in “shin-deep water” clad in winter clothing, right down to grey wool mittens  in the heat of summer – was the basis for his book.

“I knew that’s where the story had to start. How many times as a journalist do you hear the stories; patients pass away in that park. Such a juxtaposition; beautiful Bowring Park, but it’s always been home to tragedy. As a journalist, I remember so many times – maybe once a month – a patient was found passed away there, usually in a small bit of water, and it never made sense to me.”

Callahan knows the realities of mental illness can mean death happens for a variety of reasons. “Drugs they are on, or taken off of, or drugs they’re not supposed to be on, or seizures, or so many other causes. But it still always haunted me; why? How? How does it happen?”

That this book is a must read for anyone looking for a grand escape and adventure is a given. That it should be mandatory reading for anyone affected by mental health should be shouted from the rooftops. In fact, Callahan dedicates Growing up Next to the Mental  to ‘’anyone who has ever suffered from or has been affected by mental illness, which may well be just about all of us.”

That this work of fiction is actually based on fact is hauntingly raw and beautiful – and often funny. 

From losing clothing to wandering, bold patients who walked right in off the street and helped themselves, to conversations and encounters between a child and someone living with mental illness, the book, Callahan says, essentially “wrote itself.” 

The Missing Coat 

“With where we grew up, that this story would come out was inevitable. The coat missing? True story. I was very young, but around Christmas time I lost a brand new coat and we found out a patient took it because we saw it that summer on a patient. It brought me back to finding the guy in the river who had winter clothes on in the summer. It made no sense, but it doesn’t always make sense when you are dealing with mental illness,” he says frankly.

The book explores many ‘touchy’ topics; from youth being hospitalized in “the Mental,” to suicide, to the very use of the word ‘mental.’ 

Facts are facts, and the times were the times, Callahan says without apology. 

“The point was, we called the Waterford the Mental and we thought nothing of it. Maybe some may be offended by the use of the word but it has to be viewed in the lens of then. It wasn’t meant as a label, or as a  hurtful thing, it was short for its actual name. It wasn’t until later on when mental illness took a place in the consciousness of the times that the word became offensive and it started to be controversial,” he explains.

Haunting Yet Powerful 

“The word, when it has a stigma attached to it, then that’s when people started taking offense to it, but you can’t judge today by what happened then.”

That this book is powerful is evident by those praising it as mind-changing. Dr. Nizar Ladha, a retired Professor of Forensic Psychiatry, is one who says he understands the importance of this novel (See his review of the book on Page 4). 

“His words have been incredible, saying the book is profound and timely and courageous. With his background, to have him say that scenes in the book haunt him, is powerful. I tried to be raw but real, because that’s what real life is. Drugs, mental illness, suicide; life is at time tragic.” 

That readers of the book have reached out to him, including this writer, to say they were impacted by the words he wrote, is flattering, yet almost tragic at the same time, he shares. “You have suicide and the issues that comes with that, and people try to get their heads around it all and the point I tried to make in the book, and I drew on a lot of court cases that I’ve covered on mental illness as a journalist – the testimony, the first hand accounts. The point I try to make is this; there’s common themes. So if I can add something to the understanding of suicide, then that’s great.”

Page 158 is particularly powerful. Callahan says he’s been told that by many readers. He’s humbled. 

“I’ve been told that page should be distributed out to everyone. All I know is my experience. With suicide, there’s this need to understand. People say, who in their right mind would do something like that? Well, that’s the point. They were not in their right mind. For anyone with a mental illness, you can’t second guess why someone would do something ‘crazy’ if you are of ‘sound mind.’”

A Delicate Dance 

The book handles this dance between right and wrong or sound mind or unsound as a child would; with courage and innocence.

“What I try to ask is this; where’s the line between normal and not? And if, after reading my book, you are left with a better understanding of the fact that there’s not always a clear line, then I did what I set out to do.” 

3 thoughts on “Brian Callahan on Writing ‘The Mental’

  1. joan
    August 6, 2019

    This is a wonderful book and should be required reading for high school students to increase their understanding and compassion for those suffering from mental illness. Brings to light that mental illness is not something far away but right in our backyard

  2. Anita Wyatt
    December 26, 2019

    Bought this book as a gift, was disgusted when the recipient reported it was to be continued. She was anxious to read the ending and was very disappointed. She found the book captivating and couldn’t wait to read on, but was left hanging. I haven’t read the book myself, but feel it should have had a conclusion, even if a series is planned.

  3. Jeanie Maxwell
    November 18, 2020

    This book was an enjoyable read. I work in a Library and would recommend it other than………….to be continued

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