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One of the largest newspapers in Canada ran this article about a Mad Student Society, where college students with psychiatric labels organize together for mutual support and social change.

‘Mad’ and proud of it

Date Published:

Nov 18, 2009 12:00 AM

Author: Philip Fine

Source: Globe and Mail

Lucy Costa has seen the pamphlets. Those would be the ones that ask if you’re feeling depressed and often lay untouched at the university health clinic. She doesn’t put much stock in them helping to turn around a university student’s mental health difficulties or even getting them to seek aid. “God bless the person who can be helped by the pamphlet,” she says.

Ms. Costa is one of the founders of the Mad Student Society (MSS), a group that has been able to make great strides in getting people to come out of their shells, form friendships, become politically active and feel better about themselves.

The group, made up mostly of students who have experienced the psychiatric system, use a once-a-month two-hour group talk to discuss personal issues and day-to-day difficulties “without fear that you’re going to be charted or pathologized” says Ms. Costa.

For MSS member Joel Zablocki, peer support is about being able to discuss all kinds of subjects with others who are at your level and have gone through similar experiences. “You don’t have the strange power dynamic of a doctor-patient relationship.”

The group, which numbers 45 on their list serve but will attract anywhere from 10 to 30 for meetings, also hones in on topics from a more intellectual, academic and political perspective. Issues will range from what it’s like to have a relationship with another person who is facing mental health issues to bringing forth experiences with psychiatric coercion. Its advocacy arm, the MSS Collective, has been trying to identify barriers in education and promote peer support in other universities.

While the group does not eschew psychiatry and medication, Ms. Costa says its mandate is to go beyond “biology as the problem and drugs as the answer.”

MSS, which meets in a classroom provided by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, is a rare venue offering university students a peer support group for mental health issues. Ms. Costa says that while universities have grown more aware of disability issues, there is still a woeful lack of mental health resources.

Mental health peer support has it roots in group therapy and 12-step programs but also has taken cues from the civil rights, feminist, and gay and lesbian movements, as well as from the growing advocacy work being done by and for de-institutionalized psychiatric patients.

MSS proudly retains an outsider image. Ms. Costa feels it has an edge over the psychiatric system, which has tried peer support. She says if someone who has been put into the role of peer does not know the person they’re working with or is having to deal with liability issues, the supportive situation is less effective. MSS support seems to remain more constant and organic, as members will go from arguing their point in a group discussion to going out together to a café after meetings.

The political side of the group is ever present, with the terms “psychiatric survivors” and “mad” being used – the latter term a reclaiming of a pejorative in the same way that “queer” has been adopted by the gay movement. For Jeremiah Bach, the word “mad” feels to him much more appropriate than calling himself “ill.”

Mr. Bach’s participation in the advocacy side of the group has led him to think up a few political slogans he’s used in public, one of his favourites being “The Revolution will not be Psychiatrized.”

Mr. Bach has been with the group since it started in 2005 and has seen himself now better able to focus on personal relationships and his own physical health.

Many in the group have been able to get to the point where they can laugh about their situations. Mr. Bach tells the story of how one nurse, raising her hand above her head, said to him during a difficult time: “Now, Jeremiah is sometimes like this,” then put her hand to her shin and said “But Jeremiah is sometimes like this,” and then, putting her hand at stomach level told him, “But we need Jeremiah to be here.”

He likes to use that voice and hand gesture ironically to describe to members of the MSS how he is feeling at the moment, saying, with a hand at one of those three points, “Jeremiah is here.”

Special to the Globe and Mail

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