On July 6th, Mad in America Continuing Education will kick off its Mad Studies webinar series, which I had the honor of organizing. I think everyone undergoes a personal journey of sorts before they arrive at a point where they are interested in mad studies, and for me, organizing this course has been the culminating moment of a journey that began years ago, when I was a college student in Philadelphia.
My introduction to the field of mad studies was an accidental one. I was in my last semester of college. I needed one more course to complete my Hispanic Studies minor, and since I was writing a senior honors thesis, I wanted to take a course with as little additional writing as possible. A friend of mine recommended a Hispanic Studies course that only entailed three exams and a participation grade. I was in. The course was entitled, “Mad Women in Hispanic Literature and Film.”
Up until that point, my only exposure to the mental health field had been through mainstream campaigns and efforts. Having been diagnosed with a mental illness myself, and having been bullied throughout my life for being different, I eagerly joined my college’s chapter of Active Minds, an organization that aims to destigmatize mental health on university campuses. I assumed that the chapter’s initiatives and events would involve efforts to make emotional distress more accepted and people with mental differences more included. However, most of the chapter’s efforts focused on encouraging students to seek mental health treatment. Up until my last year of college, I had been growing increasingly frustrated with Active Minds, but I couldn’t quite put my frustration into words.
The “Mad Women in Hispanic Literature and Film” course I took introduced me to theories about the social construction of “mental illness” as well as conceptualizations of “mental illness” as a response to systemic issues including patriarchy and capitalism. We began the course by reading a chapter from Foucault’s Madness and Civilization to provide us with a broad framework for how “madness” has been conceptualized throughout history. Here, psychiatry and the medical model were presented as just one interpretation of “mental illness,” not absolute truth. Next we discussed “madness” as a result of patriarchy and capitalism in Beatriz Guido’s short story “La mano en la trampa” (“The Hand in the Trap”), as well as the construction of romantic love as madness in Del amor y otros demonios (Of Love and Other Demons) by Gabriel García Márquez. We also discussed the role of traditional gender-role stereotypes around motherhood in “madness” in “Como una buena madre” (“Like a Good Mother”) by Ana María Shua.
Suddenly, I had a framework, language, and academic theory to describe some of my frustrations with the conventional model of mental health. I had been exposed to the field of mad studies, a discipline that encompasses a variety of philosophical, social, and cultural perspectives on what we consider “madness” and that rejects the biomedical model of psychiatry. Through my studies, I had learned that in attributing all distress and extreme states to biological brain diseases, the conventional model of mental health overlooks the social and societal causes of “mental illness.” In encouraging students to seek mental health treatment, Active Minds was failing to address the systemic roots of distress on campus, such as student debt and competitive university climates.
As I have written about previously, at the end of the semester, I was involuntarily hospitalized the night before my college graduation. My family was disappointed in me for choosing to pursue a career in social work rather than law or medicine, and I felt like a complete failure. After expressing passive suicidal thoughts, I was secluded in a psychiatric emergency room for 10 hours before being transferred to a psychiatric hospital for 48 hours. These 58 hours were the most traumatic, terrifying hours of my life; never had I felt so alone and powerless.
The course I had taken in my final semester gave me the tools to understand that my involuntary commitment was an act of injustice. The passive suicidal thoughts I experienced were a natural reaction to familial rejection (and I later came to understand that my family’s response was, to some extent, a natural product of capitalism and a classist culture). Locking me up and violating my bodily autonomy was effectively punishing me and pathologizing for reacting to a systemic issue, which of course served to perpetuate that issue and maintain the status quo within my family. To this day, I still feel incredibly grateful that I happened upon that course and was able to arrive at this perspective soon after my hospitalization, rather than believing that I had a biological brain disease and deserved to be locked up.*
After my involuntary commitment, I started to get involved with the psychiatric survivors community. Just a year and a half later, I was hired at both Mad in America and the National Empowerment Center. My roles at these organizations gave me further exposure to a variety of understandings and approaches to “madness” that reject the medical model and are aligned with human rights.
One perspective that really spoke to me was Mad Pride, a movement that seeks to embrace and accept the traits and experiences categorized as madness. Mad Pride helped me celebrate my mental differences and embrace my distress. Many Mad Pride activists reference Martin Luther King, Jr.’s notion of “creative maladjustment,” i.e. the pride he took in not being well-adjusted to systemic inequalities including racism and economic injustice. I began to take pride in being maladjusted to the issues within my family, as well as to psychiatric abuse and forced treatment.
The field of mad studies has had a real, tangible effect on my life; I would even go so far as to say that in many ways, it has saved my life. There is not a whole lot I believe in more than creating opportunities for others to learn about the perspectives, theories, and ideas that mad studies encompasses.
A few months ago, I was given the opportunity to organize a mad studies webinar series for Mad in America Continuing Education. I was absolutely thrilled about the chance to introduce people to the work of academics and activists who are working to offer new understandings of “madness” and “mental illness.” I immediately began to brainstorm ideas for potential presenters and instructors.
One of the first people I thought of was Dr. Ginger Hoffman, someone who has been an important mentor and role model for me. Dr. Hoffman is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Joseph’s University whose research examines philosophical defenses of Mad Pride. Dr. Hoffman was largely responsible for introducing me to academic Mad Pride, and I wanted to ensure that others would have the opportunity to learn from her work as well. She will be starting off our mad studies series in July by presenting two arguments defending the legitimacy of Mad Pride.
Dr. Hoffman recommended that I also reach out to Dr. Mohammed Rashed, a Research Fellow in philosophy and psychiatry at Birkbeck College and a psychiatrist, who has written extensively on Mad Pride and mad-positive activism. Dr. Rashed’s upcoming book Madness and the Demand for Recognition will examine the philosophy and politics of identity, culture, and recognition in light of contemporary mental health activism such as Mad Pride. Dr. Rashed will present our second webinar in August, which provides a unique opportunity for participants to hear about Mad Pride from a psychiatrist — a seemingly contradictory juxtaposition.
One very important part of the mad studies field is elevating and centering the voices of people with lived experience of emotional distress, trauma, extreme states, and/or mental differences. Our third webinar in the series will feature four people with lived experience who incorporate perspectives from mad studies into their identities and everyday lives. For this webinar, I selected four activists who personally inspire me and who have done incredible work to advance alternative understandings of “mental illness”: Luke Kudryashov, Kate DeWolfe, and Missy and Skylary Freels. Luke Kudryashov is a PhD student in English and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan who is actively engaged in both research and activism in the areas of Mad Pride, disability rights, and queer studies/LGBTQ rights. Kate DeWolfe is a genderqueer, mad, neurodivergent activist and the Communications Coordinator for Vermont Psychiatric Survivors, a civil rights advocacy organization run by and for psychiatric survivors. Missy and Skylar Freels are part of a multiple system — multiple people sharing one body. They are studying philosophy and political science at the University of Southern California and are intricately involved with activism in the queer and multiple communities. During this webinar, these four activists will share how they have incorporated mad studies perspectives into their identities and activism.
Our October webinar will feature two more scholars who have made outstanding contributions to the field of mad studies: social work professors Tomi Gomory and David Cohen. In their book Mad Science: Psychiatric Coercion, Diagnosis, and Drugs, Dr. Gomory and Dr. Cohen deconstruct the concept of “mental illness” and underlying assumptions of the medical model of mental health, and make the case that modern American psychiatry rests on misconceived claims, flawed science, and society’s need to control non-criminal but unwanted behavior outside the means of routine police power. Their webinar will introduce participants to the ideas in their book and give participants a working knowledge of how unsupported claims about mental illness-as-brain disease are used to justify coercion and human rights abuses.
An issue that I felt was especially important to include in this series was the topic of suicide. This is by far one of the most complex, controversial subjects in the field of mad studies; I felt that there was no one more qualified to tackle it than Lzz Johnk, a PhD student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University, and Kira Dallaire, a Women’s and Gender Studies student at Eastern Michigan University. Both Lzz and Kira have extensively studied critical perspectives on suicide, and their work on the topic is informed by critical disability studies, decolonial studies, indigenous studies, and feminisms of color. Lzz and Kira will present a webinar this November discussing suicide as a psychospiritual, individual/collective, and sociocultural phenomenon.
I also felt that it would be important for participants to hear about a perspective that is related to mad studies, and that has influenced mad studies a great deal, but that is outside of the field itself: antipsychiatry. And who could be more qualified to provide an introduction to antipsychiatry than Dr. Bonnie Burstow? In December, Dr. Burstow will explore antipsychiatry as both a theoretic position and a mode of activism, as well as its relationship with mad studies.
One question that arose for me when organizing this series was how to hold space for views that reject the medical/psychiatric model of “mental illness” but still recognize the profound suffering and distress that extreme states can sometimes cause. A common misconception about Mad Pride and antipsychiatry, for example, is that Mad Pride and antipsychiatry activists do not believe that emotional pain is real or that it can be disabling. This is one reason that I felt it was crucial to include Ron Unger, a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy for psychosis, in the series. I have always admired Mr. Unger’s balanced approach that both finds value in extreme states and “psychosis” while also acknowledging the need and desire of some people in extreme states to reduce their suffering. In January, Mr. Unger will instruct participants in this balanced approach to “madness.”
I decided to conclude the webinar series by introducing participants to yet another important perspective: neurodiversity. The neurodiversity paradigm views mental and neurological differences as forms of human diversity, rather than disorders that need to be cured. To discuss neurodiversity, I invited Dr. Sara Acevedo and Robin Roscigno, two incredible autistic scholar-activists and disability justice advocates. They will invite participants to dialogue about potential opportunities for collaboration between Mad activists/researchers and neurodiversity activists/researchers.
I feel incredibly appreciative to Mad in America for giving me the opportunity to organize the course. In so many ways, the course is truly revolutionary. Not only do the webinars provide radically new and innovative perspectives on mental health and “madness,” but the webinar series presents a radically new idea of what constitutes expertise on these topics. The majority of presenters have lived experience of emotional distress, extreme states, mental difference, and/or mental health treatment. I feel that these voices should be given tremendous weight in the conversation surrounding rethinking mental health care.
It is my hope that the course will serve a variety of purposes. First, I hope that the course will offer mental health providers the chance to learn new ways of thinking about distress and extreme states as well as new approaches to mental health care or therapy that are non-pathologizing or even mad-affirmative. I also hope that the course will offer mental health clients/consumers and psychiatric survivors a variety of new ways to re-conceptualize their own identities, if they so choose. Finally, I hope this course will help all participants — regardless of whether they have received a psychiatric diagnosis or not — become a bit more comfortable expressing and experiencing their own “madness.”
A huge thank you to everyone who has signed up so far. If you haven’t signed up yet but would like to, click here to register. I look forward to seeing you all at the start of the series!
*I wish to clarify that I do not believe that people with biological brain diseases should be locked up. My stance is that people who are not harming anyone else (i.e. violating another person’s bodily autonomy) should not be deprived of their liberty in any way.