Students Talk Mad Culture


By: Talia Gordon

Students talk mad culture

The Mad Students Society (MSS) had their monthly meeting last Saturday, November 12, at an unnamed location in downtown Toronto. In an effort to create a safe and supportive space for members, the location of their meetings is kept secret from the general public. Group membership is limited to self-identified ‘mad’ students, with the dual purpose of attracting an intimate group of like-minded individuals, and creating a sense of community that supports and celebrates ‘mad’ culture.

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.

Beyond language, what are more useful and efficacious approaches to supporting mad students on campus? Above all, Elizabeth explained, the university should not act as a pseudo-health care provider. “The university should be concerned with providing education that is accessible and accommodative, rather than handing out checklists of criteria for things you might be experiencing if you might be crazy. If they handed out a checklist of things that indicated you might need accommodation, that would be helpful.”

For more information, click here to check out the MSS website or e-mail Elizabeth at

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


This article was originally published on our old website at