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Who We Are: Dr. Shane Neilson

Dr. Shane Neilson,
Assistant Clinical Professor (Adjunct)
Guelph, Ontario

“I want to expand the idea of what a physician could be, modeling a vulnerable physician who is part of the community, not just a clinician and not just in hospitals.”

“You heard no witness tend to you, they tended the targets in your brain.”
– from On shaving off his face, by Dr. Shane Neilson.

From alienation to healing

Dr. Shane Neilson hopes his award-winning poetry about mental illness will help doctors understand mental health conditions like the one that almost claimed his own life.

He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder after finishing medical school at Dalhousie University in 2000, but he traces its oscillating highs and lows to age 8.

“Disability has been my whole life,” says Shane, 43.  “If I were the person who talked to God in the hallways, they might have paid attention. Instead I presented as a jerk. They finally paid attention when I jumped off a building.”

That was 16 years ago. He recovered fully to control the condition therapeutically and went on to a career in family medicine. He’s a doctor in Student Health Services at the University of Guelph, raising three children with his wife Janet, who is a veterinarian.

He writes prolifically, including poetry collections like Dysphoria, which won the Hamilton Literary Award for Poetry for a raw portrayal of how doctors approach the disabled, and Call Me Doctor, about his personal experience with manic-depression.

In 2015, he won the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, a prize of $150,000, and in December 2018, completed a doctorate at McMaster University in English and Cultural Studies. Again, he was right on theme: his thesis was on representations of pain in literature.

Shane believes physicians can alleviate a lot of suffering by detecting mental health conditions in their daily work.

“All those years, I thought I was a bad person. I went through medical school labelled as a badly behaving student, disordered, antagonistic. I was overly energetic and yet there were many times when I could barely get out of bed in the morning.”

The medical system can train doctors to better identify those at risk, he adds. “Conventional wisdom in medicine seeks to improve our empathy by engaging us in case studies, whereas I regard art as a transformative experience that protects against burnout and allows people to learn empathy.”

He hopes to form a working group of nurses, doctors and others to tap that potential empathy. “Medicine is sorely in need of critique by the humanities,” he says.

McMaster University Department of Family MedicineMichael G. DeGroote School of Medicine