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Two years of Mad Studies organising in the UK by Brigit McWade

What a difference a (couple of) year(s) makes!  

I was incredibly moved by the success of this year’s Mad Studies stream at Lancaster Disability Studies conference. I couldn’t possibly list my highlights here – it was the whole event! The atmosphere, the knowledge shared, the rich discussions, and the people. Instead, I’d like to look back at Mad Studies organising in the UK over the past two years, to share some of what I’ve learned about creating mad owned spaces and centring mad knowledges.

Just over two years ago, my colleague Hannah Morgan (now Director of the Centre for Disability Research, Lancaster University) invited me to work with Peter Beresford to put together a Mad Studies ‘stream’ as part of the Centre’s well-established and internationally recognised Lancaster Disability Studies conference. Since then, there have been several UK events specifically exploring what Mad Studies is and what it might offer us in terms of critical thinking and activism around madness and distress. Alongside these events, more Mad Studies books, journal articles and blog posts have been published, community based courses have been developed, and there are now at least two Mad Studies Facebook groups.   

The first Mad Studies Stream. Lancaster University, 2014 

In 2014 we approached the stream organisation in quite a loose way. We received (and accepted) fifteen abstracts from people whose work was about the politics of madness and distress, but they didn’t all necessarily badge their work as ‘Mad Studies’. We were lucky enough to have leading Canadian Mad Studies activists and scholars present, who discussed what Mad Studies is or might be (Brenda LaFrancois), the challenges of making space for Mad Studies within the neoliberalising university (Kathryn Church), and the practice of teaching Mad Studies to liberal arts students and psychiatric residents (Jijian Voronka and Lucy Costa). There were also presentations about neoliberal policy and practice covering recovery, welfare reform and anti-stigma campaigns (myself, Kate Mattheys and Victoria Armstrong, respectively). The areas of education and employment rights were addressed by Feredic Fovet and Rosalee Dorfman. Questions concerning the costs and benefits of working in alliance with professionals, other disability groups, and trade unions were variously discussed in papers by Lucy Costa and Mick McKeown, and in general discussion. Two papers, those by Alison Wilde and Helen Spandler, and Jill Anderson and Bob Sapey, explored representations of and engagement with the alleged link between madness and violence. As part of the programme we dedicated the last session to an open discussion, and highlighted themes that required more time and space for discussion – two of which were the link between neurodiversity and mad studies, and violence and madness.   

Mad Studies & Neurodiversity: exploring connections. Lancaster University, 2015

The following year, funded by CeDR and Lancaster University’s Sociology Department, myself, Peter and an informal advisory group (Damian Milton, Hannah Morgan, Helen Spandler, Steve Graby and Larry Arnold) organised a one-day symposium taking up the topic ‘Mad Studies and Neurodiversity: exploring connections’. This issue had been raised in a chapter by Steve Graby in Madness, Distress and the Politics of Disablement, and we celebrated the launch of this new work with editors and contributors the evening before the symposium.

With the organisation of the first Mad Studies stream under my belt, I turned my attention to learning more about how to fully open up university spaces in an inclusive and accessible way. The event was free. Drawing on expertise from the Autscape conference (organised by and for the neurodivergent community) we adapted the Shaping Our Lives ground rules for engagement, to include waving rather than clapping, and experimented with the lighting and organisation of the furniture. Each speaker was either neurodivergent, mad-identified or mad-positive. We discussed the connections between identity, bodies or embodiment, organising, knowledge and space. Members of the Oor Mad History collective talked about the Mad People’s History and Identity course at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, and how creating a ‘mad owned space’ was an important element of their teaching and learning practice. Artist Lyte Moon invited us to consider how to de-institutionalise our thinking and our organising. Creating space for Mad Studies with an academic environment is a physical and material practice as well as being concerned with changing knowledge and research practices.  

Making Sense of Mad Studies. Durham University, 2015

This conference took place a few months later, organised by Victoria Armstrong and the North-East Mad Studies Forum, and funded by The Wellcome Trust. It was free, and the organisers offered bursaries to help with travel and accommodation. Keynote speakers were Peter Beresford, Brenda LeFrancois and Richard Ingram. Alongside research papers, many presented on their experiences of teaching Mad Studies. There were some great artistic interventions, and a panel discussion exploring the issue of publishing Mad Studies work. During our two days together an interesting set of questions emerged concerning the canon of Mad Studies and whose knowledge counts. Was Mad Studies really rooted in the thinking and writing of a set of dead white men such as RD Laing, Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz? What is the connection between Mad Studies and Disability Studies? Or Mad Studies and Cultural Studies, Feminist Theory, Postcolonial Theory, and so on? Is its canon only made up of knowledge created within academic institutions?   

The 2nd Mad Studies Stream. Lancaster University, 2016

In 2016, Hannah once again supported Peter and me to hold the second Mad Studies stream at the Lancaster Disability Studies conference. This year’s conference was the biggest in the conference’s history, with more than 275 delegates from all over the world.

The approach to organising this stream was a lot more carefully considered and selective than in 2014. Key decisions in organising the 2016 stream began with negotiating the material barriers. Lancaster Disability Studies conference is an academic conference, and delegates have to pay a fee to attend. Many academics have access to institutional funding to attend conferences because it is part of their job to present research findings to academic audiences on a regular basis. However, if we were to ensure the inclusion and participation of non-academic community members in the Mad Studies project, and others on insecure incomes, it was important to offer free or subsidised places and travel bursaries. The conference has always offered subsidised places and bursaries, and this year Hannah and I increased the number available. We also ensured that the student/ unwaged rate was frozen at 2014 rates. In addition, I secured sponsorship from PCCS books for two places at the conference, including accommodation and meals, and ran a crowd-funding campaign that raised enough money for three more places. Competition for these funded places was high, and making the decisions about who to fund was emotionally tough.

Organising the 2016 stream was also an exercise in finding a balance between recognising Mad Studies roots and making space for newer voices to be heard. We received more than forty abstracts, and this time around many of them – from well-established community organisations to postgraduate students to academic researchers and activists from across the globe – were explicitly named as ‘Mad Studies’. We aimed to include as many contributions as possible, and made some key decisions in our selection process. We decided to prioritise paper presentations which shared the findings of empirical research and also considered intersecting oppressions. Those presentations discussing teaching Mad Studies or the experience of madness were invited as poster presentations. We also assembled a special panel discussion on the relationship between Survivor Research and Mad Studies. For my part, I carefully curated the programme so that papers in each session were organised around themes such as gender, alliances, sexualities, and the mind/body split. It was like making the best Mad Studies mix tape.

This approach to programming meant we covered a lot of ground, and sites of discussion included rape culture and sexual abuse, migrant lives and citizenship, the role of service-user organisations and peer workers in changing the system from within, the shared histories and theories of LGBT and mad activism and scholarship, marginalised identities and experiences within mad communities such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and physical impairment, the role of medication, and our relationship to and understanding of science, in particular medical science.

We were delighted to have two keynote speakers, both closely linked to the development of Mad Studies in Toronto, Canada. Lucia Costa, an activist and advocate, has most recently galvanised survivor-led activism and research into the issue of violence in the lives of people living with mental health diagnoses, from a Mad Studies perspective. Jijian Voronka’s cutting-edge work addresses questions of inclusion and peer-work in mental health, and Jiji has extensive experience of teaching on the first ever Mad Studies course, offered at Ryerson University’s School of Disability Studies for more than ten years.

Lucy and Jiji drew on a wealth of experience to show us what Mad Studies can do to move the conversation about ‘mental health’ beyond the status quo. They raised important questions about how we might organise our work and activism since forms of oppression are shifting. Many of our presenters also came with ideas that sought to refresh or rewrite dominant arguments within the survivor/mad movement. These contributions drew on a rich combination of mad knowledges and postcolonial theory, queer theory, feminist theory, critical race studies, and cultural studies to situate madness and distress and connect it with other forms of power, identity and oppression.

This is a significant move away from situating Mad Studies as a continuation of white, European thinking and critique. This feels especially important. If Mad Studies is to break down boundaries and address inequalities, both in the way we know madness and distress, and how we live with those experiences, everything that has come before cannot just be re-named Mad Studies, but nor can we just collectively go about re-inventing the wheel.   

What next?

Working from inside the academy, I have spent two years learning and organising around Mad Studies in the UK. I am inspired by those who are creating different spaces within and outside of the university. But my hope is that we don’t continue to reproduce that distinction too strongly, because it is divisive. Neither ‘the university’ nor ‘the community’ are singular entities. In my experience of working in a university, you can always find pockets of people who think critically and fight a daily battle to keep that space open for thinking and doing things differently. Community organising principles can work in academic spaces, and some academic practices can work to build communities across that border, providing resources and ensuring that we get the most out of the time and space we have together – since this is always limited.

I have witnessed a great enthusiasm for these opportunities. But they require careful work if they are going to succeed. I look forward to attending future events and the continued collective conversations to come. ■  

Brigit McWade, at the Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, was co-convenor of the Mad Studies streams in 2014 and 2016.