Mad Studies – what it is and why you should care

By Lucy Costa in Toronto, Ontario Canada.

This post was originally printed in the CS/info Centre Bulletin. The CS/Info Centre is an information resource centre providing assistance and referral to Consumer/Survivors and others in the Greater Toronto area (Canada). All staff and volunteers are consumer/survivors of mental health and/or addiction systems.  They have been providing support and publishing the bulletin since 1992.

From September 9th – 11th, 2014 Lancaster University in the UK held a Disability Studies conference with a stream that focussed specifically on Mad Studies. This is very important and it signifies a step forward in our history, community organising and hope for a more inclusive future especially for our next generation. Canada has some classes that do teach, “Mad Peoples History” but we need more commitment for an educational structure that supports learning, exploration and critical thinking in universities, colleges, and learning centres of all kinds. Given that for the last four decades lip service has been paid to inclusion, participation and rights for consumers/psychiatric survivors, it is reasonable to request that a morsel of funding be given to develop this area of study so we can build on the great work of our previous consumer/survivor leaders, and mentors.

What is Mad Studies?

Mad Studies is an area of education, scholarship, and analysis about the experiences, history, culture, political organising, narratives, writings and most importantly, the PEOPLE who identify as: Mad; psychiatric survivors; consumers; service users; mentally ill; patients, neuro-diverse; inmates; disabled -to name a few of the “identity labels” our community may choose to use. Mad Studies has grown out of the long history of consumer/survivor movements organised both locally and internationally. The methods, and approaches for research are drawn from other educational fields such as women’s studies, queer studies, critical race studies, legal studies, ethnography, auto-ethnography (again, just to name a few). But, Mad Studies, right here, right now is breaking new ground. Together, we can cultivate our own theories/ models/ concepts/ principles/ hypotheses/ and values about how we understand ourselves, or our experiences in relationship to mental health system(s), research and politics. No one person, or school, or group owns Mad Studies or defines its borders. As explained in the book, Mad Matters, Mad Studies is a, “project of inquiry, knowledge production and political action”.[1] Presently, (and as discussed at the Lancaster conference) we need more action. All we have available as a “progressive” theory to us now is the “recovery model.” Yup, the recovery model is important but it’s not enough to understand who we are, or what is needed especially in the current budget-cuts climate that favours business plans and wealthy professionals’ opinions. More to the point, “recovery” has been co-opted by the mental health system. The money that is being invested into the system right now ain’t about recovery, it’s about efficiencies and outcomes and dishing out services cheaper and faster. There will be some people who will inevitably criticise or feel threatened by the idea of “Mad Studies,” but the reality is that there is huge potential for trailblazing and innovative ideas. Think of what a difference feminist studies made in the lives of women, or what queer studies has done for the LGBTQ community or critical race studies to our understanding of how race and law intersect. Why shouldn’t we have a Mad Studies??

Why should you care about Mad Studies?

1. What you don’t know, actually can hurt you.

When you do not have the words, to name something that is oppressive, illegal or destructive then you do not have the knowledge or power to change it. Words matter. Ideas matters. Truth matters. Mad Studies is about getting to truths, asking more questions and finding more words. Education is knowledge, and knowledge empowers us.

 2. We have something valuable to teach other areas of study:

And here, I don’t mean that we should be invited to a committee to review or offer feedback on already developed project. I also do not mean sending consumer/ survivors off by themselves so that they can tell their individual story or become a token poster child in projects with complex, deeply entrenched structural problems. I mean, that we are capable of teaching and offering deeper analysis that integrates critical thinking into what is going on, and how things are done. United we stand, divided we fall. We would have a lot to offer the study of art, law, social work or ethics. For example, perhaps all projects that have to do with mental health should meet with some ethical standards as developed by the consumer/survivor community. I bet we could offer a lot to businesses that wanted to learn more about creating a “psychosis friendly” kind of place. I bet we could teach people who organise rallies and forums how to be more inclusive. I bet we could even teach astronaut Chris Hadfield a thing or two.

3.Flip the micro-scope

Perhaps it’s time to flip the scope. Let’s stop studying mentally ill people and start studying sane people, normals, well-adjusted, balanced and secure people. What do their brains look like? Why do they get the kinds of haircuts that they do? How do they behave in workplaces, at cottages in the banks? What’s it like to be really rich and debt free? Let’s not talk about this newly popularised notion of, “patients as teachers” and instead, discuss, “psychiatrists as bad learners.” Flip the questions. Question the questioners. How many times have you been asked to participate or give your feedback on how to make the system better? Flip the scope— maybe it’s time we stop answering those questions and have Mad Studies develop our own questions and research agendas.

4. We Are Not Alone

Way back in the 1940s, a group of ex-patients founded, We Are Not Alone (W.A.N.A) in order to remind people of just that point. It was an early support group and yes, it’s part of our Mad Studies history like many other things we can hopefully house in a Mad Studies museum one day. We have evidence of our organsing, art, writing, thinking and endeavours to make the world a better place. For example look at the or the Survivors’ histories website, or the first support group in Vancouver called the Mental Patients Association:

5. Mad Studies is about you!

Finally, and this may be the most important point; your ideas matter. It’s not about how much school you’ve had, or credentials and it’s not about your pocket book. It’s about joining conversations. If you don’t share your thoughts, opinions and knowledge, then you impact nothing and no one. And hey, the next generation of consumer/survivors are going to push us forward BIG TIME. There are some very serious issues and debates impacting the lives of service users and we have to help each other to speak up. We need to be thoughtful, smarter and more strategic about what we say and what we do. That will require everyone. It requires you.

[1] Brenda LaFrancois, Robert Menzies and Geoff Reaume (eds.) Mad Matters: A Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (Toronto: Canadian Scholar’s Press, 2013) at pg. 13.


8 thoughts on “Mad Studies – what it is and why you should care

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s