Ryerson hosts international conference on Mad Studies
TheStar.com – news/insight
Published On Sat May 19 2012. Jim Coyle, feature writer
As terms of art go, “high-knowledge crazies” is about as intriguing (and, by design, mildly alarming) as it gets.
Surprisingly, perhaps, more than a few people are cheerfully claiming that label at Ryerson University this weekend. Also on hand are the “mad-identified,” “the mad-positive” and various “psychiatric survivors” from around the world.
To be frank, the uninitiated might reasonably fear they wouldn’t be able to tell the players at the school’s international conference on Mad Studies without a program cribbed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
The Ryerson conference is certainly different. It might even be the first of its kind. What Kathryn Church hopes is that it’s also a watershed moment in her professional journey of a quarter-century — or perhaps the entire complex history of the turbulent, often troubled mind of mankind.
Church is director of Ryerson’s School of Disability Studies, established in 1999. Two of its most popular courses are Mad People’s History and the History of Madness — courses taken by students from across Ryerson faculties, by students of engineering, theatre, nursing, by students with and without a history of mental illness.
The curriculum was pioneered by Geoffrey Reaume, who was diagnosed at 14 with paranoid schizophrenia, twice admitted to psychiatric facilities, who dropped out of high school in Grade 9 and for a time worked in a sheltered workshop.
Prof. Reaume has since earned a PhD (his doctoral thesis a history of asylum life from the point of view of patients at 999 Queen St. W.), designed the Ryerson course and now teaches at York University. This weekend, he got married in his hometown of Windsor.
Since 2004, Ryerson’s “Mad” courses have been taught by former Toronto city councillor and New Democrat MPP David Reville, who coined the delightful term “high-knowledge crazies” to describe those who are picking up academic credentials to go with their diagnostic label, adding formal knowledge to their first-hand understanding about how life with mental illness feels, looks, sounds and smells.
As a young man, Reville spent time in the 1960s in three “madhouses,” knew the stigma, became familiar upon discharge with society’s margins. Yet, he found a way to make a living as a plumbing contractor, got politically active, was elected to two terms on city council, then to two at Queen’s Park.
During that time, Kathryn Church recalls, Reville was probably the only “out” former mental patient in Canada.
The slow change in attitudes and practices — in society and academia — “started with people like David who began to speak publicly about their history, challenging the way people would conventionally talk about it, insist on being included in decision-making forums.”
Church dispatched him to a conference in England in 1988 to deliver a paper they’d written “and, in a sense, this event here started there.”
“There was a kind of bubbling up in Canada and elsewhere of people who had the label and were beginning to really push back, challenge the way that psychiatry was shaping their lives, challenge the discrimination that went with being considered mentally ill.”
When he began teaching at Ryerson, Reville hadn’t set foot in a university — other than for the odd guest lecture — in 30 years. He had no credentials. This did not prove an insurmountable barrier.
“Because mad people’s history is happening all the time,” he once explained, his habit was merely “to incorporate breaking news into my lectures.”
Church says that “what we’re trying to do is offer a counterpoint to the history of psychiatry, which is sort of a professional and a disciplinary history, with the lived experience of madness.”
At Ryerson, that experience increasingly shows up in the curriculum. It shows up in how students bound for work in the mental-health sector are trained. Perhaps most important, it shows up in the appearance of more and more faculty members with first-hand experience.
As Geoffrey Reaume explains, is no small thing.
“Throughout mad people’s history, the academic elite have literally organized against mad people through a multitude of oppressive practices and ideas,” he says.
Through their medical faculties, universities conferred “power and legitimacy to enforce imposed practices ranging from lobotomy, ECT insulin-coma shock, excessive drug treatments, discriminatory labels.
“Now that some of us are in these elite positions within academia, it is essential to ensure we use this power and privilege to organize, to promote, research, write and engage the public about a topic that has too often in our history been interpreted through the views of medical-model academics.”
Reaume says there have always “been mad people within the academy.” But they hid their histories for fear of losing jobs and credibility.
“The fact that a course like this is available at all, and a conference like (Ryerson’s) is taking place, is one indication about how much has changed since the early 1990s.”
Ryerson has invited scholars from the universities of Edinburgh, Columbia, Central Lancashire, as well as community-based advocates — people who “work at the intersection of mental health, formal education and social movements.”
There’s little ethereal idealism about it. One of the sessions addresses how universities and the mental-health sector cope with tough economies.
“These are austere times,” Church says. “That’s the challenging sort of global context that we have.”
Neither is there any naivete about the entrenched nature of problems and challenges.
“We’re concerned about the ongoing problems of employment, housing, discrimination, human rights violations, institutionalization,” Church says.
“The same litany of problems that has not changed since I entered this field in the mid-’80s.”
“We’ve really just begun to see this coalescing (of both academic knowledge and lived experience, of expertise from different parts of the world) in the last few years,” she says.
That is why this “mad-positive” professor with “mad-identified” colleagues and friends is so thrilled to welcome the assembly of “high-knowledge crazies.”
“It’s time that people who are being trained to work in the mental-health sector aren’t just steeped in formal knowledge, but in knowledge of the personal narratives of people who’ve been through the system.”
It’s also time, she says, that higher education is made more accommodating to those who have the lived experience of mental illness and its shaming labels.
And, as the ever-mischievous David Reville decided, it’s time the mad got to invent a few labels of their own.
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