In 1993, a group of psychiatric survivors, friends, and allies gathered in Parkdale to protest their marginalization and mistreatment at the hands of the medical establishment, the government, and the police. The event was called Psychiatric Survivor Pride Day.
Twenty years later, what’s now known as Mad Pride is a week-long event that mixes activism, skill sharing, and celebration of both survival and what Mad Pride organizing committee member Alisa Triest calls “mad culture.” She says that many psychiatric survivors, as well as other people who have been diagnosed with medical illnesses, have decided to reclaim the term “mad,” much like how other marginalized groups have reclaimed words that were once used as slurs against them. She says that using the word “mad” also serves several other purposes.
“People use the word ‘mad’ so we don’t medicalize our experiences,” she says. “Psychiatry is a relatively recent invention. It’s only been around for about 200 years.” Mad Pride, she adds, is a way of framing psychiatric illness as a community, rather than as a medical diagnosis.
She says that Toronto’s Mad Pride event has sparked a larger global movement.
“In Canada, we’ve had Pride in Winnipeg, Montreal, Hamilton. Vancouver’s had Pride for a long time,” she says. “But there’s also been Pride all over Europe, in Australia, South Africa. They had Pride in Ghana.”
This year’s Mad Pride, which kicked off on Monday, will feature a wide variety of arts programming, including music, visual art, and a “Mad Comedy Jam.” Triest says that, much like other cultures, mad people have a particular way of making art that may not immediately make sense to outsiders.
“It’s about mad people poking fun at ourselves,” she says. “Using our experiences to talk about things that are funny, that other people wouldn’t always laugh at.”
“When you’re talking about suicide and making jokes about that, other people would be like, ‘Oh my goodness, you can’t talk about that.’ But when you’re in a community where everyone’s been suicidal, you can laugh at what some of the common experiences are like.’”
Martine Matthews is the curator of this year’s Mad Pride art show, called “The Architecture of Madness.” It opens on July 11 at 246 Sackville Street. One thing she wants made abundantly clear is that this is a bona-fide art show. The artists were juried and critiqued. The result, she says, is a mixture of established artists and new voices that could compete with what’s on offer at any gallery in the city.
“We want to show the excellence in our community,” she says. “A lot of times when there are shows of mad people’s art, it’s put on by agencies, and there’s no curatorial criticism. It’s an open door, and there’s a place for that. But this is an art show, and the quality of work had to be strong…What was stunning was that each person’s body of work was clearly one person’s of body of work. They all had a distinct quality.”
She adds that one of the most impressive things about the show is how the artists are able to make fascinating work with limited resources.
“Mad people, and people with disabilities as a whole, have to find different ways to do the same things that other people do,” she says. “Sometimes you see people coming at things sideways, and you go, ‘What a fresh approach.’”
“We’ve got a photographer in the show who’s never had a camera. All his work was done with a cell phone, because that’s the tool he had…And he’s done a series based on light, painting with light, and that’s the very essence of photography.”
The week will culminate in the annual Mad Pride bed push on July 14, where participants push hospital gurneys down the street. Triest says this year’s edition will take a different route than in years past.
“Traditionally, we go from CAMH on Queen Street to the Parkdale Activitiy and Recreation Centre, the theme of which is ‘escaping the asylum and heading into the community,’” she says. “This year, we’re starting at the Parkdale Library, where the first Pride happened in 1993, to talk about how we’re in the community and our concerns are in the community.”
Ultimately, she says that the goal of Mad Pride is to get members of the broader community to better understand the challenges faced by people who perceive reality differently, and to have the mad community take pride in its achievements.
“When we think about Pride, we think about having pride all the time, and being very out. That’s not always what it looks like for people,” she says. “People are going to feel negative about themselves sometimes.”
“But even when I feel crummy about myself and the world, I can still feel pride in my friendships and my community.”