In their information pamphlet, the group is advertised as a “Peer Advocacy Group for Students who Experience the Psychiatric System.” Since its inception in 2005, the society has sought to represent and support those who “are currently, or have in the past experienced the psychiatric system.” This self-description is merely the tip of the iceberg to understanding the multiple functions, roles and voices of the organization.
Though advocacy is an important component of MSS, the society is often erroneously pigeonholed as a campus group dedicated to ‘mental health’ issues. MSS member Elizabeth explained, “We’re not just a formal group of people who engage in peer-support and advocacy, we’re also a community.” Together, group members work to foster this community in order to empower students in a number of different ways, within and beyond the walls of the university.
Group member Alisa explained why the group has chosen the word ‘mad’ rather than ‘mentally ill’ or other common psychiatric terms. “The first big difference is what language we choose ourselves and what language we are labeled with. Most people have been told what their label is, and it’s usually medical,” said Alisa.
Like many marginalized groups who have positively re-adopted formerly oppressive language, the MSS prefers ‘mad’ as an identity-label. “We’re reclaiming the word ‘mad,’ which has been used throughout history to identify our community,” Alisa explained. “For me, using the word ‘mad’ is a kind of form of pride. Most importantly, it’s a way of participating in a social movement... rather than focusing on a language that has been used against me.”
The language of madness expresses a non-medical paradigm of understanding and engagement when it comes to advocacy and support for self-identified (and unidentified) mad students. The society emphasizes a shift from “mental illness awareness,” to encourage alternative understandings of madness and other idioms of distress. In the same vein, the society advocates for the creation of environments and spaces to celebrate rather than to treat or confine the expression of madness.
In describing the advocacy work of the MSS, Elizabeth shared her own experience of being a mad student in the academic milieu. “What I was dealing with in university was extreme isolation, the rigid structure of courses and campus itself, and the lack of community... [within] structures that didn’t encourage socialization.” Elizabeth explained how experiences of distress produced by university structures become individualized, rather than examined as a broader community issue. “It becomes about identifying people ‘at risk’ and about individual intervention. But offering treatment isn’t going to take away someone’s isolation and loneliness.”
Even community-oriented approaches to improving understandings of madness can be misdirected and at worst, oppressive. Elizabeth explained, “Often when we’re invited into a public space to talk about mental health, wellness and alternatives, there are already structures in place that expect discovery illness narratives and recovery stories. We want to resist that.” Alisa added, “Or we get tokenized as the ‘spokesperson for the community,’ and that’s not useful either.”
Instead, the group members suggested that in community education, a good place to start is language. “People use a lot of intellectual disability language... like ‘crazy,’ and ‘insane,’ and often in very negative ways that reinforce the idea that craziness is bad,” explained Alisa.