Together at the Poles

Community and Identity: Three Questions About the Mad Pride Movement

Last week, I had the opportunity to host a table at the “Mad Market” at Toronto’s “Mad Pride” festival. It was a great experience, as it gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of other people with mental illnesses and to see some of the excellent artwork that people had produced. Among other things, I really came to appreciate just how creative people with mental illnesses can be.

At the same time, I was also being introduced to what is called the “madness movement” or simply “madness.” I’d certainly heard of it before, but I’d never really encountered it in an organized way. However, at the festival, there were some seminars being given on the movement, so I learned more about it.

What I heard concerned me. While I really appreciated the creation of a community of people with mental illnesses and the opportunity to share our experiences, there were three primary questions that I had that I would like to ask. They are genuinely questions. While I obviously have strong preliminary reactions, everything here is tentative until I’ve had the questions answered.

The Madness Movement

The madness movement claims that not to be proud of having a mental health condition is to treat ourselves as though we are somehow “bad.”

Daniel Bader at Mad Pride

Me at Mad Pride – Copyright © 2012 Daniel Bader

From what I understood, the basic premise of the madness movement is that madness is only a “way of being” rather than an “illness.” The madness movement claims that treating mental health conditions as illnesses buys into oppressive power structures and conceptions by those structures of what it means to be “normal.”

Aside from this conceptual framework, the goal of the madness movement is to establish for ourselves an identity of which we can be proud. The madness movement claims that not to be proud of having a mental health condition is to treat ourselves as though we are somehow “bad.”

According to the movement, the reason that we need to form an identity is because the difficulties in the lives of people with mental illnesses is solely or primarily the result of “ablist” and “sanist” power structures. Any failure to accommodate our needs would be a type of active discrimination called “mentalism.” Were we to get rid of ablism, sanism and mentalism, we would thrive.

Question #1: Do We Want Madness To Be an Identity?

It doesn’t matter who is doing the reducing; I want to be and to be seen as more than just my mental health condition.

"Queue - Quo Vadis" by Hartwig Kopp Delaney

“Queue – Quo Vadis” by Hartwig Kopp DelaneyCC BY-ND 2.0

In a lot of ways I was very surprised to hear that people would even want a mental health condition to be an identity. This seems to be not only a small step away from what most people with mental illnesses have said to me, it seems to be a giant leap in a completely different direction.

I’ve been criticized several times, both on this blog and in person, for saying that I “am bipolar,” rather than saying that I “have bipolar disorder.” The former, people think, indicates that I am somehow identifying myself, at least in part, with the disorder. In turn, they argue that we should say that it is something we “have,” as to identify with it is to reduce ourselves to a negative social label (I’ve discussed this issue before. I don’t think saying that I “am bipolar” does this anymore than saying I “am diabetic,” but I share the desire not to be reduced to my mental illness.)

The madness movement, though, seems to be going in the opposite direction, not only saying that my mental health condition is a part of me, it is my identity. It isn’t even a part of who I am, it is who I am.

I have some sense of how people from the madness movement might respond on this point. Since, in the madness movement, we are not being labelled by others but labelling ourselves, we would actually be fighting stigma by labelling ourselves. That’s why a quasi-insulting label like “madness” was adopted in the first place (other movements have done something similar).

Fair enough, but I think it misses the main concern that many people, including myself, have. Identity movements, just as much as stigmatizing labels, reduce people to those identities and labels. It doesn’t matter who is doing the reducing; I want to be and to be seen as more than just my mental health condition. Creating an identity for ourselves out of these mental health conditions seems to go in the completely opposite direction.

Question Two: Would Having an Illness Be Something To Be Ashamed Of?

If the madness movement is right, we cannot stop being ashamed of our mental health conditions unless we stop treating them as illnesses.

I also worried that the madness movement seemed to be buying into one of the premises of the very people who stigmatize people with mental illnesses. Specifically, the entire argument seemed to rest on the premise that mental illness, or any illness, is something that we would be ashamed of, if it were real.

Let’s look at how the madness argument works. “Illness” is just a deviation from the “normal.” The “normal” is what is approved of . “Illness” in turn is a term of abuse, hurled on those who don’t conform to the standards of those in power. (I’m pretty sure some of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals is at work here). Except as a term used for shaming, there is no such thing as illness. It is just a social construct, and an oppressive one, at that.

If one accepts the above claim, it becomes very clear why calling bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition a mental “illness” is problematic: “illness” is a term of abuse. To consider oneself mentally ill (or ill in any sense at all) would be to take on oneself an abusive label and to shame oneself. It would be to treat oneself as though one is somehow “bad” (this is all a part of their definition of “sanism”).

Okay, but this actually conflates two things: treating illness as real and treating it as shameful. However, these aren’t the same thing. In fact, treating them as the same thing is something that people with illnesses have been fighting against for decades. Most people who have illnesses consider those illnesses real but not shameful. We don’t want their suffering ignored, but we don’t want to be abused for it, either.

If the madness movement is right, we cannot stop being ashamed of our mental health conditions unless we stop treating them as illnesses. However, this implies that if we continue to treat our mental health conditions as illnesses, then we will be ashamed of them. In other words, it seems to treat mental illness, if it is real, as something to be ashamed of.

Question Three: What Does the Madness Movement Say About Those of Us Who Consider Ourselves Mentally Ill?

I’m not only not proud of being mentally ill, I’m actively seeking to be as mentally healthy as possible.

"Mars Black Sun" by Hartwig Kopp-Delaney

“Mars Black Sun” by Hartwig Kopp DelaneyCC BY-ND 2.0

This question follows immediately on the following one. If “illness” is simply a term of abuse, then it would seem that anyone who accepts that he or she is mentally ill is reinforcing the stigma around mental illness. After all, “illness” is just a term of abuse created by those in power to oppress us. Anyone who uses the term would be treating socially constructed terms of abuse are real, and therefore contributing to the problem.

This seems to be an unjust accusation. For many people with mental health conditions, treating those conditions as an external illness to be fought is important therapeutically. I don’t quite use this framework, but treating my bipolar disorder as an illness to be managed and integrated is vital to my own therapeutic approach.

So, a lot of us treat our mental illnesses as illnesses. However, the madness movement would argue that we are therefore reinforcing stigma and discrimination. Suddenly, just by trying to get better, we become the bad guys.

Moreover, there is a big difference between being proud of being mentally ill and being proud of living with a mental illness. The madness movement wants us to be proud of being mad. I don’t really see the point in being proud of being bipolar, and I simply am not. I am no more proud of being bipolar as I would be of being diabetic. Rather, I am proud of how I live with my mental illness, including the ways that I fight it on a daily basis.

The problem is, this would seem to make me more than the bad guy; it seems to make me a traitor. I’m not only not proud of being mentally ill, I’m actively seeking to be as mentally healthy as possible. I’m fighting against the very thing of which the madness movement claims that I should be proud. Therefore, I don’t see how I could fit into their movement.

These Are Questions

I deliberately wrote this article as questions. They are my impressions of what I was hearing at the Mad Pride festival, and I may have simply misunderstood things. There may be some slight turn of phrase that would make the whole thing clear. This is why I am looking for feedback.

However, at present it isn’t clear, and the madness movement worries me. Identifying myself with my bipolar disorder, not treating bipolar disorder as an illness, and being proud of my bipolar disorder are all things that I don’t want to do, and I’d appreciate any explanation of why I might want to do those things.

17 Responses to Community and Identity: Three Questions About the Mad Pride Movement

  • I find all that very disturbing.

  • Hi Daniel,

    I agree, those are legitimate questions. It would seem to me that if I were “proud” of my illness (and I am using the word “illness” with a sense of acceptance, not pride), then I wouldn’t take my meds either. I am not willing to do that. I also believe that, from what I see in your writing, that you have an excellent therapeutic approach to living with the illness, just as a diabetic must. Indeed I find your approach intelligent, realistic, and something to model…which I have been doing since I found your site…and it is working well. Like a pendulum, we swing from one extreme to the other, passing through the middle ground with as much speed the momentum can gain.

    Good blog Daniel…keep up the excellent work as always!

  • i really dislike the term “mad”. it makes me think of “mad” King George and the expression “mad as a hatter”, which to me are denigrating and disrespectful. i have a mental illness diagnosed as bipolar, but i have absolutely no problem saying i am bipolar. i’m also female, short and middle aged. all of these describe me, but they do not define me. my son has diabetes, and frequently says he is diabetic when politely refusing food offered him that he shouldn’t eat. but diabetes does not define him. what defines him? compassion, generous in heart and spirit, loving, caring. what defines me? caring, tenacious, loyal, fiercely protective of my family. i am bipolar, but bipolar is not me.

  • Good points. I went to a support group not long after diagnosis with bipolar. I only lasted 2 seasons because I was told I was too normal. Go figure??
    I now use useful blogs such as this for support – keep up the great work

    • Thanks, Darren. That’s a really inappropriate thing for them to say, and I’m sorry that happened.

  • Bravo…..simply, bravo!

  • I think for me being “mad” is about accepting that I can define what my mental health issues mean to me. I consider myself to have an illness, I take meds, but I am also proud of who I am. Who I am has been shaped by living with bipolar since I was very young. To divorce my identity from the illness, for me, would be to deny that having been ill on and off for 20 years was formative. I am proud of being mad as opposed to being proud of being sick. For me madness is what was produced in the interaction between the illness and my personality. I think differently than people that are not affected, my perspective is different and I have done a great deal more self-reflection than the average person. Psychiatric patients have historically been sorely mistreated, and there are still people alive today who were treated with insulin comas, to say nothing of the fact that there are still patients being treated badly today. Mad pride includes an acknowledgement that psychiatry is not a complete science. They still don’t understand the action of many of the medications and there are no empiracle tests for something like bipolar disorder – all the diagnostic tests are based in opinion. I don’t really have a problem with psychiatry, but many people do, and the mad movement accommodates them. The mad community is incredibly diverse, but from my experience is more about choice and autonomy than shaming or blaming people who accept the medical model. There are always going to be radical activists who push for an extreme position, but this should be about not allowing ourselves to be shamed, and being proud of who we are. It is about being proud of how you live with madness, and proud of the things that being mad has made you learn about yourself. My 5 cents. Sorry for going on.

    • Thank you for the perspective, Annette. I really do appreciate what the madness movement is trying to do. My concern is only with what it actually says.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with everything you have said here. My partner and I both have bipolar disorder, although mine is a more manageable type than his and his is also complicated with diabetes. These are health conditions NOT our identity. While we embrace these health conditions we will not be defined by them. They are something we have, something we live with and manage each day of our lives. We are still proud of who we are. We do not go through life intentionally hurting anyone and we make every effort to be kind and to take care of others. We have nothing to be ashamed of nor do we think that we should allow ourselves to be angry with the cards we have been dealt. And we certainly do not allow ourselves to be reduced to our illnesses. I agree that “Creating an identity for ourselves out of these mental health conditions seems to go in the completely opposite direction.”
    Great article.

  • With the benefits system and the NHS here so wedded to the idea of recovery it’s brave (is that the right word?) to say I’m Bipolar and Proud, but I do it anyway. People can shake their heads and say that’s a sign of my ‘insanity’. If I were ‘recovering’ I’d be repudiating the madness in myself and seeking to distance myself from it, move away from it, towards ‘sanity’. I actually now believe bipolar to be a neurological condition: fluctuations in brain functioning (high: fizzing and bouncing with ideas and energy; low: can’t remember how to boil an egg and bumping into the furniture, risky to put into a place of work etc.). Given that it’s along the same spectrum as MS, that makes sense to me. My early warning signs of switching ‘mood’ (don’t like that word – it relates to emotion and though I may feel frustrated, I’m not moody) are all physical: shivery shoulders, hypersensitivity to light/smells/touch, alterations to libido, overactive bladder etc. I don’t perceive my condition as a ‘mood disorder’. If I can be phlegmatic about my constantly changing level of ability to think/function, I don’t get emotional. I have outbursts, but that’s because when stressors come at me when I’m volatile – particularly when many come at me at once and catch me unawares – my mind can’t get me to where I want to be, and I’m in tears, red in the face or wanting to run away. The little grey cells aren’t functioning, so I become the lizard and dart for cover and safety. Hide away in my flat behind my computer (as I’m doing at the moment)… That’s my understanding. Shame doesn’t come into it. Proud? Yes. Of myself, which includes the cyclothymic (rapid cycling) bipolar. Best wishes to all fellow sufferers (we do suffer, don’t we – 3 steps away from ‘Bedlam’… Jan

    • Thank you for the perspective, Jan. I guess my approach is to neither be proud nor ashamed of being bipolar.

  • Dear Daniel,

    I question the way in which you address the ‘mad movement’ as though it is one cohesive entity with a single perspective. Please be mindful of the fact that the mad movement is comprised of many individuals with various experiences and opinions regarding these issues. This is not merely what ‘it’ says. I believe your questions mainly surrounds the nature of mad pride versus shame, which may vary to different degrees depending on the person, their own unique experience, and how they are politicized. In an ideal world, the duality of pride and shame would not have to exist. Why? Because we would not be immersed in an environment conducive to shaming and discrimination.

    • Thank you for your response, Josephine. Does the complexity of the mad pride movement imply that it is immune to criticism? I don’t think we need an ideal world in order to avoid the duality of pride and shame.

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Counselling from Daniel
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC
Daniel Bader, Ph.D., RSW, CCC is a Registered Social Worker and Canadian Certified Counsellor with a private practice operating out of Kitchener, Ontario. He provides in-person counselling in Kitchener and email, video or telephone counselling within Canada.

To find out more, please visit the website for his private practice, Bader Mediation & Counselling Services.