Mad Pride supporters gather by the historic, patient-built walls outside CAMH in Parkdale.
The organizers of last week’s Mad Pride festival want you to know that the property on Queen and Shaw, currently home to the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), harbours an unsavory past. To glimpse this history, one need only look at the historic brick walls that line the premises. These century-old partitions were built almost entirely by patients of the former Provincial Lunatic Asylum—without pay—just one example of the exploitative labour practices that played a central role in the operation of that controversial institution.
In recognition of the past and present struggles of Toronto’s psychiatric consumer/survivor community, self-identified “mad” people and their allies gather each July by the CAMH grounds for their annual Bed Push. Armed with signs, drums, and more face paint than seems reasonable on a sweltering summer afternoon, the marchers literally break out of the historic asylum and parade through the streets of Parkdale.
“And we do it,” says organizer Elizabeth Carvalho, “escaping on gurney.”
The Bed Push is the centrepiece of Toronto’s Mad Pride festival, which has taken place annually in some form or another since the early ’90s.
“At its core, Mad Pride is about community celebration and development, rights education, and recognition of our community and its members,” notes Carvalho. It’s a global movement that draws heavily on disability and gay rights struggles.
Just as LGBTQ pride activists seek to reclaim terms like ‘queer’ and ‘fag’ from misuse, “Mad Pride activists,” says Carvalho, “seek to reclaim terms such as ‘mad,’ ‘nutter,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘lunatic,’ ‘maniac,’ and ‘psycho.’”
“You can cut through language like ‘consumer/survivor’ by saying ‘crazy,’” she goes on. “People kind of know what you mean when you say crazy, and it can be shocking because people have an expectation of what that means. Are you dangerous? Are you unreliable? And you end up seeing people who are just fun—who are just people.”
Parkdale-High Park MPP Cheri DiNovo leads the Bed Push west along Queen Street, towards the Parkdale Community Centre.
Mad Pride activists aim to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by presenting “madness” in a positive context. In doing so, they hope to provide an alternative to the “you’re broken and you have to get fixed” message many see as inherent in psychiatric diagnosis. “It’s not about needing to overcome your disability. The disability becomes a part of your identity. It’s who you are.”
While Mad Pride Toronto does not align itself with the anti-psychiatry movement, or presuppose any common ideology among its members, it’s fair to say the attitude at Saturday’s parade wasn’t pro-psychiatry.
“The medical model doesn’t always provide a way out,” says Carvalho. “It provides some people an understanding of what’s happening—that my brain is damaged and it needs to be fixed—and that can be very comforting. But it’s a negative comment on who you are. Whereas different is not always negative.”
This is not a sentiment shared by the mainstream medical community. As psychiatrist Ken Nobel puts it, “If I had suicidal depression, I would damn well want to be fixed. If I had obsessive-compulsive disorder and couldn’t stop washing my hands or spinning in circles, I would damn well want to be fixed.”
Disagreements like this are what separate Mad Pride from other pride movements: the reactions that it generates don’t fit neatly into progressive/regressive stereotypes.
Even a seemingly innocent position, like the movement’s call for increased patient choice and self-determination in psychiatric care, can prove surprisingly controversial.
Most psychiatrists believe that it is ethical to force a patient to accept treatment, if they become a danger to themselves or others. According to Dr. Nobel, “There are psychiatric illnesses where people completely lose contact with reality one way or another, or get actively suicidal and would kill themselves if you didn’t intervene against their will.”
Now for some, the phrase “against their will” may conjure up images of Jack Nicholson being forced to endure soul-sucking, unmodified shock therapy. But Dr. Nobel wants you to know that psychiatry has changed dramatically since the days of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Titicut Follies. We know a great deal more, he argues, about the causes and effective treatments of mental illness.
Despite these changes, Mad Pride activists still see themselves as engaged in a struggle for basic human rights.
A Mad Pride activist states her case.
Take the recent act by Provincial Parliament to place Ontario’s independent Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office (PPAO) under control of the Canadian Mental Health Association. It’s a move that Cheri DiNovo claims “absolutely takes away the independent right to complain about services.”
A number of marchers sported signs supporting the newly formed Coalition for an Independent PPAO. For a population often wary of their treatment at the hands of the psychiatric establishment, losing an autonomous watchdog like this can feel like a low blow.
But while arguments over medical models and rights issues provide the underlying chatter, politics at the Bed Push take a backseat to the pageantry of the parade itself. This is after all a reclamation of madness and mad culture. Unlike anti-psychiatry, whose main icons were themselves therapists, albeit unconventional ones, Mad Pride has been conceived, organized, and promoted almost entirely by psychiatric consumer/survivors.
“What if Mad Pride challenges the very boundary between ‘madness’ and ‘reason’?” asks Professor Stuart Murray, a Ryerson Medical Humanities scholar not affiliated with the movement. “Who is vested with the moral, legal, and medical authority to police that boundary […] and why?” These are the questions that Mad Pride compels us to ask.
Carvalho pretty much sums it up. “There’s nothing inhuman about madness, it’s really a more extreme version of what people experience in their lives. We can be absolutely fine with that sort of diversity existing in our world, and those kinds of minds existing. We think those experiences have value, and add meaning to life, and they’re something to be proud of. They’re different—not bad, not broken, just crazy—and crazy ain’t bad.”
To learn more about Mad Pride in Toronto, visit madpridenetwork.com.
Photos by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist.