ConferenceREVIEW: Making Sense of Mad Studies

 Durham University September/October 2015

Organised by Dr Victoria Armstrong Associate Lecturer disability and Mad Studies, Durham University and Northumbria University.

Byline *Warning: may contain traces of nuts*

Polly Mortimer

Mad Studies is new to me as a discipline. My attention was sharpened by an article in The Guardian by Peter Beresford (2014) and I thought this conference would consolidate and enlighten. It was a whirlwind of thoughts, angles, new and fascinating people, great food, lovely ambience and it provoked me to re-examine a lot of my hidebound opinions.

Day One
Professor Peter Beresford (the man himself) started with a gripping keynote. As his intro stated there is “a potential to engage different stakeholders in equal relationships, prioritising the experiential knowledge of survivors and committed to a participatory praxis which challenges the individualisation and pathologising of madness and distress.” There are dangers though. Many user-led developments such as the recovery movement have been co-opted by professionals and policymakers. Mad Studies needs safeguarding. Society has been doing ‘to’ rather than doing ‘with’ and he went on to stress that no one owns Mad Studies, it is a brave new idea and there is a need for transparency, accountability and inclusivity.

Mad Studies emerged from Canada which is among the most inspired-thinking places in the world right now. Ryerson University in Toronto is one of the places fore-fronting the movement. One of the huge barriers to progress though is ‘sanism’, a “belief system that makes it okay to pick on, make fun of, discriminate, reject, silence, discredit, pathologise, de-centre, kindly undermine and commit violence against the mad. Sanism is an oppression, it is the reason for stigma.” [1]

Canada has at least 6 universities with Mad Studies courses sitting within departments of sociology, anthropology, social work and history. Most of the teachers have lived experience of madness and a large number of academics and activists have published a book Mad Matters: a Critical Reader in Canadian Mad Studies (2013). Brenda LeFrançois, one of the editors, was also at the conference and we had a friendly chat waiting for it all to begin. Back to Beresford. He stressed that the fact that no one ‘owns’ Mad Studies is exciting. A parallel could be disability studies developed by disabled people collectively. This ensures support for equal living with the ‘able’ and challenges discrimination.

So much to throw into the ring – intellectual activity, collective activity, clique avoidance. ‘It’ must be transparent, accountable and inclusive. Generosity is called for, no hierarchy, plenty of trust and confidence. Politically Beresford wondered if the Left ‘gets’ madness and suggested taking heart from the identity movements of the 60s and 70s. He also visited the thorny issue of ‘recovery’ as interpreted by the state which is both hopeful and destructive. There were lots of comments and questions from the floor, including those calling for more diversity among the attendees. But I wondered who can tell at a glance every individual’s background and sexuality?

Next a chunk of fascinating presentations
Alisdair Cameron (Launchpad) and Toby Brandon (Northumbria University) posited ‘Autoschediasm’ (something that is improvised, off the cuff) as a springboard for keeping innovation at the heart of Mad Studies. Questions also arose around how to distinguish Mad Studies from Critical Mental Health Studies. Research is evolving in the topic and it is user led. There is however danger, as well as playfulness, in distress, which has some qualities: nothing is sanitised and ‘preciousness’ is to be avoided at all costs because service users’ views change so there may well be Mad, Mad Studies in 12 years’ time! Durham University offers Mad Studies; it sits in Childhood Studies and Disability Studies as a module. There are complex as well as exciting questions, primarily “Can academic rigour, the consideration of multiple perspectives, a spirit of honest enquiry, co-exist with sometimes ludic sensibilities, ‘deviancy’/otherness, and lived distress/trauma in a single enterprise? If so, is it with an integrative model, an assimilative one or an apartheid one?” [2]


The next presentation was by Grietje Keller. She spoke of Foundation Perceval, a service user led organisation that offers a reading group which has been going since 2014. Her group is mainly service users and the themes are chosen by the group. The experience is one where new non-medical subjectivities are created, whereas the medical model is pathologizing and isolating. A quote from one member was “You cannot come out of the swamp alone. Because of this group I started to reduce my psychiatric drugs.”

Dr Dina Poursanidou and Dr Lisa Morris spoke about co-teaching mental health professionals – ie social workers and nurses – two years post-qualification on a trainee Approved Mental Health Professionals (AMHP) programme. For Dina, mad knowledge and madness is a dangerous gift, an ambivalence. There is an emotional labour in returning to painful memories and places, but it is also a place to critique inhumane practices in the system. (Dina writes about her experiences more fully here).

After Mad Studies North-East made an impressive call for information-gathering – there was a name check for Kathryn Church and David Reville, who seem to be among the pioneers of Mad Studies working at Ryerson University in Canada. Kathryn is an associate professor in the School of Disability Studies, with special interest in psychiatric survivor stories. David has taught A History of Madness for over ten years, and finally managed to emerge from the psychiatric system himself in 1967 to find life ‘outside’ again as a teacher and activist.

‘Mad People’s History and Identity’ is a co-created six-week course held annually at Queen Margaret’s University. This was a smashing presentation from five recent students, a magnetic group of people, highly positive about the course and their experience. All mad-identified, they were taught by mad-positive academics (another discussion was later had as to whether or not the teachers had to be mad-identified or not). There were spinoff projects such as an installation on a platform at Waverley Station that they were heading back to set up. One of the number said that the course was “the making of me.” [3]

Cian Bell, one of the students, had made a compelling short film, Complex Conceptual Imbrications that struck at the heart with undertones of displacement and abandonment set against a stunning marshy, sea-infused backdrop. There was a resolution, I think, by the end, and a hint of being saved, possibly, and a spark of hope. I sat with the Edinburgh group at dinner that evening, and with one of their tutors Mark. I felt incredibly awed by this group, not in a mawkish way; they have a liveliness and huge passion.

During lunch I chatted to Johanna Zinecker from Berlin, of whom more later. We had a good discussion about art and mental health and name-checked various London places like Cooltan and the Dragon Café, with valuable work going on in this area. Afternoon kicked off with a good informal talk in the audience, about where we all were. I talked to Victoria about her programme Mentally Sound! Broadcast on Gravity Radio North East every two weeks. It sounds like a good bran tub of stuff – including comedy and news and debate around the subject of mental health. It was excellent to share stories and share hope. This interlude was followed by Q & A, throwing things up in the air and then further presentations through the afternoon including  Jumping on DSMIV by Sean Burn. After a period of sickness he had returned to film making with this piece where, in seven short sections, he interrogates visually and aurally the derogatory and well-worn phrases around madness: barking, cracking up, screw loose, nutcase, and the tiresome visual trope of depression (head in hands). It featured lots of quirky sounds, walnuts cracking, some barking and screws dropping. It had a Zen like stillness to it and it held us wrapt.

Then came a piece about RD Laing by Dr Jon Warren from Durham University. However tricky and maybe even impossible Laing became, or perhaps always was, he trained in an atmosphere where insulin coma, psychosurgery and ECT were the norm and he took all this on. He was puzzled and uneasy about psychiatry (aren’t we all?) and concluded that psychiatry was epistemological nonsense. He actually began to talk to his patients…a rare thing. He created social environments, ‘rumpus rooms’, where by breakdown there may be a breakthrough. He argued that psychotic episodes were phenomena that had meaning in their own right. Sadly this idea got lost by the end of the 20th century, but there is a glimmer of hope now with the Hearing Voices Network (HVN) and other movements such as Open Dialogue and Parachute.

A presentation by Mark Gallagher followed on the case of the Scottish Union of Mental Patients (SUMP) and the history of resistance to psychiatric power in Scotland. And then came a demystification of the role of ‘client’ in exploring therapies and therapeutic processes by Adam Timlett, basically giving the client autonomy in circumstances surrounding the value of therapeutic interventions.

The second keynote was Professor Brendan Stone on “Navigating distress: Writing, language, and the impossibility of closure.” He is a highly engaging speaker and showed us examples of his own journals when he was in a psychiatric hospital as a teenager. He highlighted the extreme importance of telling one’s story somehow, as he did. He asked how far can language take us when we live within intersecting social worlds and practices that may be toxic for wellbeing? He spoke of “the strangeness of the hinter worlds of madness” and the paradoxical beauty to be found in solidarity and love as one’s world collapses. He could name check all the people in his ward when a teenager – as can I. Something about that profound shared experience buries deep into the psyche – I can also remember all the people’s names from boarding school.

A lovely drinks get together followed as the sun set on the countryside and I talked to a dance therapist who goes onto acute wards and dances! Also to Richard Ingram from Canada who gave a keynote the next day which unfortunately I had to miss. He filled me in about Ryerson, the cradle of Mad Studies, in Toronto. He called his paper “Doing Mad Studies: the subject and object at boiling point.” It focused on the limitations of working within Disability Studies with ‘mad’ as a subset of ‘disability’. Could Mad Studies emerge as an autonomous discipline just as the Deaf have done with Deaf Studies?

There is still not a university with a department of Mad Studies. He took the question “What does ‘doing’ Mad Studies mean?” It goes against the dominant assumptions of knowledge acquisition. The object of study is all that obscures the rational mind and the investigating subject is no longer distinct from the object of study, so one can be passionate to the point of being inflamed. Then came a lush conference dinner, where I chatted to filmmakers, artists and madness historians, and a comfortable night in Newcastle.

Day Two
Unfortunately I had to miss the morning sessions but they were wide-ranging and pertinent. Starting with representatives from Recovery in the Bin, their keynote paper was entitled “‘Recovery has been co-opted, colonised and corrupted!” They laid out their 95 Theses (in fact 18 Key Principles). Among them (you can find them on Facebook) were calls for an end to the neo-liberalistic development of the Recovery Model that does not aid recovery at all, but traps people in poverty, poor housing and situations of stigma and racism and sexism. They also believe mental health services are using ‘recovery’ ideology to mask greater coercion – an example being the imposition of Community Treatment Orders as a ‘step towards recovery’. They put the case for non-medicalised alternatives like Open Dialogue and Soteria to be given far more credence and planned and delivered effectively. They also demand that mental health services do not push people to ‘recover’ by being discharged too soon or compelled into inappropriate employment.

Also explored was the wider range of survivor narratives that need to be heard and honoured, including the difficulties faced every day by those unable to ‘recover’. Disempowerment under the guise of empowerment seems to be the way of feeling you have to tell your story. Then Brigit McWade spoke on the “Neoliberal Politics of Recovery”. Her paper provided an intersectional analysis of the ways in which policy, legislation and psychiatrization enact particular subjects as ‘failed’ citizens. She argued that exclusion and detainment are constituent elements of neoliberal state making, which are discriminatory and unjust. She drew out connections between madness and mass incarceration, highlighting interconnected forms of disenfranchisement, dispossession and social injustice.

All through the conference, questions, statements, ideas and thoughts had been gathered on stickies around the room. The next presentation invited “What should we doers of Mad Studies have on the prospectus (if we even had one!)” A forest of yellow sprung up around the noticeboards full of suggestions – from Freire to Boal and back again among hosts of others. Afternoon sessions included Dr Mick McKeown from University of Central Lancashire, considering mad activism and possible alliances with trade unions. He put a case for community unionism, ‘relational organising models’ and repoliticizing. There was a lot of referencing of a seminal work in this field, Psychopolitics by Peter Sedgwick (1982), who made a case for state funded welfare and mental health care and for the necessity of political alliances to achieve this.


Next up the very refreshing Aidan Moesby, creator of the Periodic Table of Emotions. It’s an installation we were asked to take part in. He made the case that socially engaged arts practice sits at the bottom of the art hierarchy and is under-valued and under-respected. He felt that workshops are formulaic and aimed at the lowest common denominator. There is a lack of critical discourse and a certain amount of exploiting of service users work. He felt that there is a ‘Macmillan tilt’ when it comes to critiquing the work, with head on one side ‘compassion’. There should be the best possible materials and conditions and quality needs to be at the forefront.

Johanna Zinecker from Berlin gave a fairly intense paper on “Representing and Performing Mad Expertise and Experience in Artistic Production.” This dwelt on two recent works: Gemma Anderson’s 2010  exhibition Portraits: Patient and Psychiatrist, and Performance2014’s  The Assessment. This paper addressed ways of seeing and ways of knowing and the ethics of agency. My final session before I had to dash for a train home was “How to Get published and How to Publicise.” Ideas were thrown around including videos, oral history, online open access journals, and the journal Radical Psychology was named as a possible home for discourse.

There’s so much more I could say. I came away with my mind buzzing. There is a lot to find out, lots to do and lots of discussion to be had. It’s an exciting time. There are ifs and buts though – how to beat down the conservatism of academia and continue to create afresh. There are the politics of sitting mainly with disability – is madness necessarily a lifelong disability? How do those who are less ‘activist’ make their mark? How can the field ensure it will be truly inclusive? How to be professional without being exclusive? How to tell experiences – without an obligation to do so? Should the ‘departments’ be peopled exclusively with those with lived experience? There was so much good feeling and good will and an atmosphere for change. Maybe Mad Studies could be part of a tipping point away from the traditional medical model of psychiatry and its ‘treatments’ to a reworking and remoulding of the field entirely.

More information can be found here, a hugely important and ever expanding resource with all the latest news of the development of Mad Studies. I shall be covering the Open Dialogue Conference 2016 in the next issue of Contemporary Psychotherapy.

Polly Mortimer is librarian at the Minster Centre and library consultant to the BPF; she has personal experience of the psychiatric system.


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