Hot! Mad Pride Toronto seeks to bring mentally ill into the mainstream

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – The July 7-14 pride celebration, which will mount events across the city, aims to destigmatize mental illness.
Jul 01 2014.   By: Daniel Baird

Anyone who spent time in downtown Toronto last weekend would have noticed that the streets and parks, the bars and cafes and restaurants, teemed with gay and lesbian couples enjoying the balmy summer weather, and not just in the gay ghetto on Church St., but everywhere.

One of the reasons for this is that the organizers of World Pride 2014 Toronto collaborated with local businesses, galleries, and museums, so that for at least a week, the core of Toronto was under the billowing rainbow flag of the diverse LGBTQ communities. And of course the events on Church St. itself, culminating with the Trans March, the Dyke March, and the Pride March, were nothing less than ecstatic and celebratory.

One of the distinctive features of World Pride 2014 Toronto was its focus on transgender people, the last group in the LGBTQ community to suffer serious stigma and to lack access to the mainstream.

Things may well be looking up for the transgender community. Recent cover articles in Maclean’s and Time magazine that address transgender issues suggest they may be slowly moving toward the mainstream.

Next week, Toronto will play host to another pride event dedicated to bringing into the mainstream a community, of unknown size and reach, that suffers from stigmatization — those afflicted with mental illness.

Mad Pride Toronto 2014, alluding as it does to Pride Toronto, is a celebration of the contributions to art, culture, and society of people labelled “mentally ill,” and a call for the end of stigma. It will take place between July 7 and 13. Like the use of the word “queer” in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, the “mad” in Mad Pride is an irreverent reappropriation of a pejorative word.

The stigma attached to people with mental illnesses is similar to that associated with lesbian, gay, and transgender people, especially in the past: people with mental illness are queer, abnormal, strange, unfit to participate in ordinary society, unstable, unpredictable, and often dangerous.

But the Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates that some 7 million Canadians — 20 per cent of the population — experience some form of mental illness, and that does not even take into consideration the scores of people who, out of shame or fear of stigma, never seek professional help.

There are, however, some tentative grounds for hope. In 2009, the Mental Health Commission of Canada launched Opening Minds, the largest initiative in Canadian history designed to reduce the stigma of mental illness, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission has just issued a new policy on mental health disabilities and addiction meant to address chronic issues of access to housing and employment as well as harassment by service providers.

The commission’s intent is to bring the treatment of mental health disabilities and addiction into compliance with the protections people with other disabilities commonly enjoy under the Canadian Human Rights Code.
And, of course, there’s Mad Pride Toronto, which was originally organized by rooming house residents in the Parkdale section of Toronto and was initially called Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day. Despite resistance even within the community to the idea that people living with mental illness have anything to be proud about, Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day aimed to acknowledge that people with mental illness are legitimate and often productive members of the broader community.

Held on Sept. 18, 1993, the first Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day was a modest affair, a march of about 100 people that began at the Parkdale Public Library on Queen St. and continued to the old boundary wall of what is now the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Participants laid flowers at the base of the wall in remembrance of the people incarcerated in the asylum that had once occupied the site. The name “Mad Pride” was not adopted until 2002.

Mad Pride Toronto 2014 will not attract the nearly 2 million people that attended World Pride. Still, the occasion has evolved significantly since its early days in Parkdale, and there will be events all over the city — talks, plays, poetry readings, workshops, a mad hatter tea party and an exhibition of visual art, Architecture of Mad: An Exhibition of Mad Artists.

Most discourse about mental illness tends to be either medical or institutional — how to treat and what to do with those who suffer from it. Mad Pride Toronto 2014 offers the much needed opportunity to engage with people living with mental illness as equals within the community, their forms of cultural life, their singular history. Madness needs to go mainstream.

Daniel Baird is a Toronto-based writer.

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2 Comments

  1. People living with a mental illness are taking possession of the word “mad” and turning it into a term of pride and identity. Mad Pride Toronto shows determination not to be defeated or marginalized. It demonstrates the power of collective voices and mutual support.
    We’ve come a long way in Canada from institutionalization to providing programs and supports for people living with a mental illness. I am proud of the steps we’ve taken as a society to promote inclusion and acceptance. However, from what I understand, ODSP is barely enough to live on, not to mention the fact that most psychiatric medication is expensive. I can imagine the stress of individuals who not only live with a serious mental illness, but who also struggle to make ends meet every day.
    In addition, many people living with addictions and mental health illnesses are homeless or living in poverty. It is a barrier to receiving care when someone does not have an address or a phone number. These are real challenges for people and unless this is addressed, the majority of those affected by this may not receive care. This demonstrates to me that these issues are societal and not personal. We help the individual who needs care, but not the other issues surrounding mental health.
    I feel conflicted how about what is provided in terms of funding to hospitals for mental health by the provincial government. I am grateful that there is assistance and support, but it is only to a certain extent, and only if a person meets the parameters that are built into the system. Furthermore, if poverty is harmful to the spirit, when it is compounded with mental illness or addiction, it could be even more challenging to try to develop a healthy lifestyle which is the goal of many programs offered through the hospital. Our health care system demonstrates our humanity, but it only goes so far.
    Neo-liberals pretend to promote equal opportunity, but while there is equal opportunity for help, long term solutions could be far more beneficial for the individual that falls through the cracks for various reasons. The stigma for mental illness may be slowly fading, but there are still numerous barriers that have not been addressed.

  2. This article does justice in illuminating the positive steps that we, as a society, have taken towards eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness. In the past, we have often used the term ‘mad’ to describe those diagnosed, and so the ‘mad’ population has taken back this term, has freed it from its negative connotation, and have taken ownership over it which projects a sense of pride as opposed to shame. Society has come quite a ways to provide appropriate programs and services for those deemed ‘mad’, rather than resort to the once popular institutionalization and confinement. Reading this article shows us that we are well on our way to finally abolishing the stigma attached to mental illness – however some may argue that this is not enough. There are many other barriers that those diagnosed face that need to be addressed. And, although I do agree with that statement, I favour the stance of the article. To explain, this article does well in comparing the stigma associated with mental illness to that of the LGBTQ. Years ago, we can agree that those belonging to the LGBTQ community were excluded from society because it was something that had a negative stigma attached to it. Those who were gay, lesbian, transgender, etc., were too ashamed to stand together and rise above the marginalization that was imposed upon the title.

    However, as more people began ‘coming out’ and expressing who they were, it encouraged others to do the same, and eventually created a collection of voices to rise against the negativity. By rising together, positive change was reached; same-sex marriage is legal, transsexuals can change their legal gender, and discrimination based on sexual orientation has been banned – just to name a few. This leads me to mental illness. Before we can address the barriers that the mentally ill face daily (such as finances for housing, mediation, etc.), we must first strive for equality. If the community stands together as one, and is proud to identify as ‘mad’, not only will this encourage others to get the help they need, but this will show the surrounding community that the population of those diagnosed is much larger than we lead ourselves to believe. Once we begin to accept that, we can begin to support it and the ‘mad’ community can achieve the same goals just as the LGBTQ has done. To paraphrase the article, ‘Mad Pride Toronto’ may not gather the numbers of individuals just as ‘World Pride’ did, but I think it is safe to say that it is well on its way. Only when we accept others, can we begin to strive for change.

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