Hi mindyourmind readers! My name is Alisa and I’ve been a member of Mad Students Society (MSS) for 3½ years. In this case, I mean Mad as in madness – not anger (well, sometimes anger) or an acronym.
Mad Students Society is an unfunded, unstaffed, voluntary, and free peer support and advocacy group of and for students who have personal experiences with psychiatric or mental health systems. MSS was formed in 2005 because the only thing around on college and university campuses seemed to be medical ideas about madness. The medical perspective is that ‘mental illness’ is a biological disorder that requires medical treatment like psychotropic medication. There was and continues to be a lack of alternative perspectives such as those created and advanced by the community of people who experience madness and the consumer/survivor social movement (eg. peer support, activism, Mad Pride). In MSS, we gather together as Mad Students to identify and challenge the many barriers we face at school including widespread discrimination. We learn about our legal rights and self-advocate for the accommodation and supports we are entitled to and need. We talk about how to obtain the healthcare and social services we want and how to avoid the ones we don’t. We contribute to the history and culture of the consumer/survivor movement. We also hang out, make friends, and have fun!
Who are we?
MSSers have different experiences with madness, distress, and services. We have different perspectives on these experiences and use/choose/refuse a variety of terms to identify and describe them (eg. psychiatric survivor, consumer, user, or person with lived experience, mental illness, mental health issues, or psychiatric disability). Some of us take back and reclaim words like ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, or ‘nuts’ from the negative ways they have been used to oppress us and others such as when they are applied as slurs to mean scary, violent, or bad. Instead, we embrace these words to celebrate our identities, cultures, communities, friends, and social movements.
By ‘student’ we mean people transitioning from high school to other educational institutions, those thinking about returning to school, as well as part-time and full-time students at all levels and forms of study including adult education, college, and university. We are not currently affiliated with any specific school and students join us from a variety of institutions.
What do we do?
We meet monthly and communicate through an email discussion listserv (similar to a forum or online message board vs. a mailing list) to support each other, discover tools for self-advocacy, and connect with our history and broader social movements. Since 2005 we have been meeting on various school campuses in downtown Toronto. In January 2012, we expanded to Hamilton and North York. While these are our current ‘formal’ in-person peer support locations, MSSers meet-up with each other whenever/wherever we want to.
Our listserv is hosted on Google Groups and is open to members living anywhere in the world. It is a private place for MSSers to use when wanting to converse with other Mad Students, receive support for Mad issues, inform other members of various events in the community, post resources relating to madness, and organize additional gatherings. Connections often develop through our monthly meetings and listserv and then spread beyond them. We think this is fabulous!
The purpose of MSS ‘peer support’ is for Mad Students to have a space just for us to support each other on our own as peers and equals without the involvement of people working in psychiatric/mental health systems, researchers, family, or other ‘allies’ and helpers. There can be an important and useful role for these people in our individual lives – but not in MSS.
How do we support each other?
Mad Students approach the Society in a variety of ways. Some see it as a ‘support group’ and others as a community. Some use MSS as way to stay connected to news, events, and resources and others as a space to develop identities, ideas, and friendships. MSS can be, and is, a lot of different things to different people. As a result, ‘support’ looks and is done differently depending on how individual members define this for themselves and what members want and/or feel able to do at any given time. We focus on supporting each other’s experiences and choices, whatever these may be and whether or not we disagree. We get to know one another at our monthly meetings and will dish over dinner or grab a coffee, attend events or appointments together, go dancing, talk on the phone, etc. We write and respond to listserv posts or email off-list. We have also crafted buttons, silk-screened t-shirts, and are writing a play – because creativity, art, activism, and fun are part of ‘support’ too!
“So I am loving being part of the mad community. I've never really had a community before. I can't get over the level of awesomeness that exists here. The weird issue, though, is the following: Here, I get listened to. I feel like I'm real. People think what I have to say is important. I get treated with respect. So many of these things are opposite to how I've experienced human relationships in the past (and in certain situations, now.) So I am having a hard time getting used to the idea/feeling of being respected. I know that sounds silly, and obviously people *stopping* being respectful isn't the way to handle things. I'm just wondering if it gets easier. Like at some point, will I be able to expect that I'll be treated with respect (in most situations), after having experienced getting respect enough?” (Anonymous. MSS listserv post February 23, 2012. Used with permission.)
What self-advocacy tools have we discovered?
Members often talk about our legal rights and share strategies for getting what we want and need in life and at school because it can be difficult to access accommodations, housing, financial assistance, legal advice, or healthcare services as Mad Students.
“We also discuss the various forms of discrimination we experience. One kind of discrimination we often talk about is called saneism or mentalism, and it refers to the rejection and marginalization of experiences of people with psychiatric labels in favour of promoting the experiences of non-labeled people. Saneism intersects with many other forms of discrimination, including, but not limited to, racism, homophobia, sexism, and sizeism, and we talk about these intersecting oppressions as well.” (Anonymous. E-mail correspondence July 22, 2012. Used with permission.)
We work together to identify and challenge discrimination.
How do we connect with our history and broader social movements?
Mad Students Society contributes to a long history of Mad community-building and activism and acts as a way into the broader Mad Movement [also called the psychiatric survivor movement or consumer/survivor/ex-patient (C/S/X) movement] for students of all ages. We create Mad community and history amongst ourselves, share information and ideas about the Mad Movement, as well as participate in Movement events like the Mad Pride cultural festival that takes place in Toronto (www.madprideto.com) and around the world every July. We try to stay aware of changes in our social, political, economic, and legal context that impact our Mad Movement and respond as we are able to.
Since most Mad people are not born into Mad communities, we discover, learn, and build our social movement by being in it!
Upcoming MSS meetings include:
September 8 and October 13 in downtown Toronto
September TBA in North York
September 20 in Hamilton: www.facebook.com/events/336976089721524/
For more on Mad people’s history, look up the Psychiatric Survivor Archives of Toronto (PSAT) at www.psychiatricsurvivorarchives.com or The History of Madness in Canada at http://historyofmadness.ca .