Ode to the MSc in Mad Studies by Julia Macintosh

Once upon a time, Queen Margaret University (QMU) stepped up to the plate and smashed the ball out of the park.

I refer to its innovative and ground-breaking MSc programme in Mad Studies. Invoking one of its core values – social justice – the university made space among its cohorts for those with lived experience of mental distress and emotional trauma, enabling us to learn and to pursue academic qualification in a world that routinely stigmatises and marginalises us. The value of this course cannot be overstated. 

The seeds of the MSc Mad Studies course can be found in Oor Mad History, a local community project in Edinburgh hosted and run by CAPS Advocacy. Oor Mad History is a cultural archive that aims to reclaim and promote the history of activism and collective advocacy by people with mental health issues. The project collaborated with QMU to create a free, annual community course, ‘Mad People’s History and Identity’ – and from these origins grew the fully accredited MSc Mad Studies programme. 

The birth of the MSc course was particularly challenging, as it occurred in the midst of a global pandemic. But three years on, it has grown to a hybrid offering that allows students from all over the world to join either online or on campus in Edinburgh. Indeed, as the first and only Master’s degree in Mad Studies in the world, its unique status as a flagship programme has grown in reputation and the number of potential applicants has risen steadily. 

The course is only three years old in its mere infancy yet QMU has recently paused its intake of new students, in order to review the sustainability of the course. Universities all over are struggling to maintain their full programme of curriculum and QMU is no different. So why should the MSc Mad Studies be continued? What is so special about this course?  

Many would say that the course is a project of social justice, bringing lived experience into the ivory towers of the academy. It has the potential to grow from a newly hatched and still-finding-its-feet programme, into a fully flourishing space in which students may learn from and contribute to a growing field.  

Mad Studies may currently be fringe, but it is pioneering a new vision for a mental health services that works together with those at their centre, where people are not simply pigeonholed with diagnostic labels, handed a prescription and sent on their way. Mad Studies invites critique, self-examination and dialogic inquiry and affords students the opportunity to contribute to a mental health discourse from which they have historically been excluded. 

Azra Khan is a student on the course, as well as the Collective Advocacy Worker for the Oor Mad History project at CAPS Advocacy. Azra points out that ‘Mad Studies, and what it represents for so many people, is indispensable. It encompasses a space which projects the stifled voices of many, challenges oppressive systemic paradigms, and dares to tread new grounds of social justice.’ 

 This view is echoed by Carmel Schmid, a student on the online version of the course, and one of two Mad Studies representatives to the university’s student union. When asked why she values the MSc course she replied that it offers ‘such a great sense of validation to openly discuss one’s own mental health condition without fear of reprisals, prejudice or stigma. But more importantly, the credibility, validation and ratification from Mad Studies being on a par with other academic output’. 

Validation is an important point, because a postgraduate qualification in a subject carries much greater weight than mere modules or micro-courses offered within a broader programme. Students are arguing to keep the entire MSc because it is a unique and substantial validation of lived experience as a form of knowledge and expertise.  

The MSc Mad Studies deserves to be celebrated and supported by the academic administration, and to receive acknowledgment and investment, rather than cutbacks and threats to its continuation. The course is a beacon for the future, a crucible for social change and should be held up as an example of how the academy may help to shape world for the better. 

Readers can support the campaign by writing to Sir Paul Grice at [email protected] and by signing the petition at Change.org. We wish to encourage the administration, when conducting its review, to take full account of the ways in which the MSc Mad Studies course upholds the university’s core value of social justice and contributes to QMU’s reputation as a progressive place of learning. 

Julia Macintosh lives and works in Edinburgh and is an associate student and student rep on the MSc Mad Studies programme. She can be found at madreality.online and blogs on Substack at juliamacintosh.substack.com. 

This is a Sample Article from the Winter 2023 issue of Asylum.  To read more, including another piece by a Mad Studies scholar, Natasha Downs. . . . Subscribe to Asylum Magazine.