Mixed Bag #2: Hel Spandler on Mad Studies
“Mixed Bag” is a series on Psychiatry at the Margins where I ask an expert to select 5 items to introduce or explore a particular topic. The 5 items are: a book, a concept, a person, an article, and a surprise item (at the expert’s discretion). For each item they have to explain why they selected it and what it signifies. — Awais Aftab
Hel Spandler, PhD is Professor of mental health politics at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, England and managing editor of Asylum: the radical mental health magazine. Spandler is also the author of several books including Madness, Distress and the Politics of Disablement (Policy Press, 2015); Beyond Fear and Control: working with young people who self-harm (PCCS Books, 2007); Asylum to Action (2006) and numerous articles including Who’s included in the Mad Studies project? Spandler currently holds a Wellcome Investigator Award to explore Madzines and tweets at: @hspandler
Hel Spandler: Thank you for inviting me to do this. The first thing I’d like to say is that I don’t consider myself an ‘expert’ in this field. Someone once said there aren’t really any experts in mental health, just experts in claiming expertise. I believe there’s far too much expertise-claiming (and counter-claiming) and Mad Studies explicitly questions and challenges professional expertise ‘about’ madness and distress. One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt is to embrace open-mindedness, humility, and uncertainty. Having said that, it would be foolish to claim after all these years that I don’t know some things about this field that I hope are worth sharing. Therefore, whilst I reject the idea of being an expert, I’ll take up your challenge. However, in the spirit of Mad Studies, I’ve subverted your questions a bit...
Book — First Issue of the International Mad Studies Journal
Spandler: There are a few excellent edited Mad Studies collections, most notably Mad Matters and the Routledge International Handbook of Mad Studies. However, given the constantly evolving nature of the field, I think the new International Mad Studies Journal is worth highlighting. The first issue has just been published (Jan 2023), it’s fully Open Access and it’s a good way of keeping up with developments in the field. Whilst it attempts to subvert the academic genre in various ways – for example, it accepts articles in a variety of different styles and formats, it is still a peer reviewed journal which uses a lot of academic language. For that reason, I’d also like to mention magazines, like the UK-based Asylum magazine, as they offer more accessible, but no less challenging, radical ideas. I admit I’m biased as I’m the editor of Asylum and on the editorial board of the journal, but I do think they offer a good way in to Mad Studies.
All of these publications are collectively and collaboratively produced, giving voice to different mad perspectives and voices. In this way, Mad Studies might be seen as a more grassroots and democratic endeavor than many other academic disciplines (Richard Ingram refers to Mad Studies as an “in/discipline,” nodding towards its unconventional and “indisciplined” character). There have been many critical texts about madness and distress, prior to the development of Mad Studies, often written by self-styled ‘anti’ and ‘critical’ psychologists and psychiatrists. Mad Studies scholars often explicitly draw on their important work. However, what is unique about Mad Studies is that it isn’t dominated or led by mental health or ‘psy’ professionals, critical or otherwise. Moreover, it’s not about producing new models, therapies, frameworks or theories about madness and Mad people. Rather, as Lucy Costa has said, it is about ‘flipping the microscope’ to examine sanist practices, politics and cultures.
Concept — Sanism and ambivalence
Spandler: To me, the combination of these concepts is necessary to understand the uniqueness of Mad Studies. Sanism, as it articulates the specific and systematic oppression and discrimination of people in society who are diagnosed as mentally ill or mentally disordered, as well as people who are neurodivergent, psycho-socially disabled etc. This concept is important because it places it alongside other oppressions (such as sexism, racism, ablism, heterosexism and transphobia) and tries to articulate its distinctive qualities - such as being subject to pathologizing practices. But I think sanism needs to be coupled with the idea of ambivalence to highlight our complex relationship with madness. Felicity Callard, for instance, has written about the ‘indispensability of ambivalence’ at the heart of debates around psychiatric diagnosis, and my friend and colleague Dina Poursanidou has spoken a lot about her ambivalence about having a mad identity.
Like Queer Studies, which has its roots in the Gay Liberation Movement and Gay Pride, Mad Studies arose out of the Mad movement and Mad Pride. Yet, people tend to have a much more conflicted relationship with madness than the idea of ‘Pride’ suggests. At the risk of gross oversimplification, whilst being LGBTQ+ might cause us distress primarily because of homophobia and transphobia, experiences of madness tend to be more intrinsically distressing experiences. This makes it more akin to Disability Studies, especially in relation to what the late disabled scholar, Carol Thomas, referred to as ‘impairment affects’ (painful experiences which can’t be reduced to disablism). Ultimately, the purpose of Mad Studies is to articulate, understand and challenge the complexities of sanism and place this in the service of Mad liberation, and to work out what that might mean!
Article — “Doing Mad Studies: Making (Non)sense Together”
Spandler: Mad Studies scholars often talk about using a ‘Mad lens’. This is quite a challenging idea. To me, the struggle to articulate what it means, and why it’s important and necessary, is one of the biggest challenges of Mad Studies. Like Gender Studies and Critical Race Studies, Mad Studies scholars draw on the problematic category (of mad, like race, gender etc.) whilst trying not to essentialize it. Obviously, Mad Studies doesn’t have an actual ‘Mad lens’ that can be shared, but the idea helps us to think about how we can open up a space for madness and Mad people to see, rather than just be seen.
One article that attempts to utilize a Mad lens is ‘Doing Mad Studies: Making (Non)sense Together’ by Richard Ingram (2016). It’s quite a short article which expresses their struggle to articulate a rational and ‘coherent’ mad perspective. In so doing, it articulates some of the conflicts, paradoxes and tensions at the heart of the Mad Studies project. Whilst it isn’t a conventionally written ‘academic’ paper, it does make sense (or, as Ingram suggests, non-sense). In fact, it probably makes a lot more sense that a lot of overly conceptualized papers with lots of academic jargon and language which, if anything, obscures meaning and understanding. I’m very keen on the idea of neurodiversity and the idea that we don’t always experience, see or interact in the world in the same way. Papers like this question the way that we privilege certain ways of thinking, knowing and writing. It suggests we need to appreciate, value and validate different ways of knowing – beyond the linear, rational and cerebral. As such, it opens up the possibility of a distinctively Mad form of knowledge.
Person - Madzines
Spandler: One of the things I appreciate about Mad Studies is that there aren’t really any ‘go to’ figures, big names who’ve published key sole authored texts and are subsequently seen to ‘lead the field.’ Therefore, rather than choose an individual figure and, in the spirit of embracing different ways of knowing, I’d like to select zines as an alternative way into Mad Studies.
Zines are small handmade DIY produced booklets often made by oppressed and marginalized people seeking to find a voice. Many mad identified people and mad activists make zines about madness, neurodiversity and psychosocial disabilities, as well as their experiences of sanism, including from mental health services themselves. These include individual perzines (about individual’s personal experiences) and collaboratively written zines by individuals, groups and collectives.
I’m part of a small team researching zines and we’re building up a collection of Madzines. You can find more about this project here. Not all zines about mental health are Madzines, as some zines merely channel mainstream understandings about mental health and illness. One of the ways we identify whether a zine is a Madzine is whether it challenges or unsettles our own knowledge and assumptions, as well as ‘mainstream,’ ‘traditional,’ or even ‘critical’ understandings. Therefore, engaging with them is a good way to embrace the importance of uncertainty and humility.
Madzines are very different from academic or clinical literature as they offer a more grassroots type of knowledge. It’s important to say that this doesn’t necessarily make them anymore ‘right’ or accurate than other forms of knowledge, but their content and form is more in keeping with a Mad Studies sensibility. At the very least, they offer us insights into the key challenges faced by mad people in society. More than this, they can be a quintessential example of mad-centered knowledge production in action.
Surprise item — Takin’ Over the Asylum
Spandler: Takin’ Over the Asylum was a British TV drama series made by BBC Scotland. I watched this when it first aired back in 1994. I viewed it again recently and it is every bit as good as I remember. At the center of the series was a handful of mental patients who were portrayed with care, humor, and sensitivity – and, most importantly, agency.
Eddie, a disaffected double-glazing salesman, moonlights to do hospital radio at a local mental hospital called St. Jude's (‘the patron saint of lost causes’). Not a mental health professional, and struggling with his own demons, he doesn’t see patients through the lens of their attributed pathology. Instead, he just sees them as fellow human beings struggling to be themselves in an unkind, dog-eat-dog world. Rather than being ‘treated,’ their various foibles are channeled into the radio station and even celebrated, although not romanticized (their pain and suffering is all too evident). Their collective efforts to take over the radio station is quashed by a system more concerned with budgets, health-and-safety rules and bureaucratic efficiencies.
It was filmed on a disused wing of Gartloch mental hospital on the outskirts of Glasgow. Many of the extras who played the other patients were ex-patients and apparently the cast, crew and extras grew into a real community. It became cult hit and was especially celebrated by the UK survivor movement. There were no plans to release it on video until a couple of fans breached copyright regulations to upload the series onto YouTube, forcing the BBC into releasing the DVD. It is still available on YouTube now.
It is no coincidence that it was broadcast around the time Mad Pride was launched in the UK. “We are loonies and we are proud!” was one of the famous catchphrases from the series, often lauded by the manic depressive Campbell Baines (played by David Tennent). Baines had some even better lines such as “what’s the difference between genius and lunacy? – timing!” and “Inspired is when you think you can do anything. Manic is when you know it.” These quotes really capture the spirit of celebrating Mad culture, an idea which Mad Studies is developing. In my opinion, it remains a brilliant portrayal of the need to challenge sanism and the ambivalence at the heart of the struggle for Mad liberation.
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