Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Making Sense of Mad Studies

by Anne Woods 
Participation Officer, PAVO mental health team

Illustration by Grietje Keller
I recently attended a two day conference at Durham University entitled Making Sense of Mad Studies organised by the North East Mad Studies Forum. Before attending, I wasn’t too sure about what to expect. Mad Studies wasn’t something that I had come across before and I felt slightly uneasy about using the word mad in this context, a theme that came up in the conference and on Twitter. 

The term Mad Studies has been credited to Richard Ingram, one of the speakers, who was inspired by the creation of Deaf Studies as an academic discipline distinct from Disability Studies and wondered whether the same could happen for madness. In his presentation he said that finding method in the madness was not as important as preserving the madness in the method! In other words, Mad Studies is a way of looking at the world that uses and benefits from a different perspective to life and need not only apply to academic research on mental health. The consensus from the conference seemed to be that Mad Studies was something done by people who identify themselves as mad and not something done to or about them.

Richard Ingram
A fuller definition is provided in the book, "Mad Matters" (2013) edited by Brenda LeFrancois (another conference speaker), Menzies and Reaume.

“An umbrella term that is used to embrace the body of knowledge that has emerged from psychiatric survivors, Mad-identified people, antipsychiatry academics and activists, critical psychiatrists, and radical therapists. This body of knowledge is wide-ranging and includes scholarship that is critical of the mental health system as well as radical and Mad activist scholarship. This field of study is informed by and generated by the perspectives of psychiatric survivors and Mad-identified researchers and academics.” 

Brenda LeFrancois
The conference included a wide range of speakers from different backgrounds: academics, some of whom identify as ‘mad’, early career researchers, activists, artists, people with lived experience of various types, sometimes presenters falling into several categories. Presenters shared some intimate and honest accounts of their own life experiences within the psychiatric system and how that had informed their work.

The agenda was jam-packed but some highlights for me included hearing about Mad Studies reading groups in Amsterdam from Grietje Keller. The groups give a space for reading and discussing critical texts that challenge the dominant medical psychiatric model and are mostly attended by people who have been users of mental health services. The groups are popular and give attendees a different perspective on their experiences.

There was discussion around ‘doing’ (teaching/ learning about) Mad Studies with a presentation from participants and tutors of a course at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh for people with lived experience of mental ill health, and tutors of a course for approved mental health professionals (AMHPs) describing how important it is for professionals to be trained by people with experience of being on the receiving end. Dr Dina Poursanidou talked about the challenges that this throws up, including managing the emotional toll of using traumatic personal experiences as an education tool, something of particular relevance to PAVO’s mental health team in the participation work that we do. 

Brigit McWade from Lancaster University on Recovery
This theme was also picked up later by an action group called ‘Recovery in the Bin’. They have adopted 18 key principles, one of which is, “we refuse to tell our ‘stories’, in order to be validated … We believe being made to feel like you have to tell your ‘story’ to justify your experience is a form of disempowerment, under the guise of empowerment.” This is an issue that I am well aware of from personal experience. As a team, I think we recognise this and carefully balance our desire to use powerful personal stories to facilitate change against the emotional toll on the individual and their right to control how much and when they disclose.

The Recovery in the Bin presentation gave food for thought on the concept of recovery and the group’s contention that it has been appropriated by mainstream mental health services and is less focussed on what’s best for each individual and is more concerned with what’s best for a capitalist society, ie: getting people into employment and off benefits as quickly as possible. The group talk about the validity of remaining ‘unrecovered’ by this measure, finding ways to live with distress that does not necessarily neatly fit into a recovery star model, also recognising that some life experiences have to be tolerated rather than recovered from.

"You told me I'm my own worst enemy. So I got a restraining order against myself!"
The conference had a breadth of views and opinions and there were some challenging discussions, about racism in psychiatry and academia for example, as well as humorous moments such as why art made by service users can actually be good art. It introduced me to several views and topics that I hadn’t come into contact with before and had a good mix of people sharing their personal experience and academic theory. It will be interesting to see how the discipline develops and whether, in future, universities will have departments of Mad Studies and full-time degree courses or whether it becomes a movement developed by grass roots activists – or both!

You can find more Mad Studies resources on a website run by Brigit McWade.

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