Maintaining the Fidelity of Mad Studies (An Ode to Mad Studies 2) by Lisa Archibald


When I first saw the advert for the MSc in Mad Studies, I was feeling frustrated and stuck. After 20 years of watching peer support being increasingly co-opted by the mental health system, I desperately needed to reconnect with social movements and local activism. It was the first ever Master’s level Mad Studies course, which felt exciting to me.

I’d followed the progress of Mad Studies in Toronto, which was driven by activist and educator David Reville and his colleagues. I had just moved back home to Scotland after nearly seven years living overseas and was trying to work out what to do next. It was the height of the pandemic, so I was stuck at home. The timing felt serendipitous, so I applied.

I was accepted, on a David Reville scholarship, for the first cohort and joined a small group of enthusiastic students. Apart from one day when we were on campus for a website photo shoot, most of the course delivery was online. This brought additional frustrations and disconnections as, being the first group of students, everyone was finding their feet and there were many unknowns. I tried to remain optimistic, despite my frustrations, as I strongly believed that the accessibility and growth of Mad Studies was a vital part of social change.

However, quite soon into the course I started to become disillusioned. I saw parallels between the co-optation of lived experience by the mental health system and Mad Studies as a discipline being used as a commodity by a mainstream academic institution. Delivering Mad Studies in a large traditional university setting is very similar to offering peer support in a psychiatric setting. Decisions are made by those who hold the power to decide how success is measured, and the focus is individualistic. It feels like ramming a colourful jumping-jack toy into an antiquated, rigid, and stale box. And guess who controls the mechanism?

When positioned in a university, the Mad Studies journey is pre-determined by the institution. For example, to be recognised as an academic course for a university, additional mandatory subjects outside of the discipline are deemed compulsory so the course can be seen as credible enough for delivery. It is the university that decides what students need to learn, for how long, and how this will be measured. This information is delivered by the institution in a one-way manner because the lecturers are presumed to be the ones with all the knowledge. The students are there to learn what those in power choose to share.

This is the crunchy part. To me, Mad Studies is a social movement in itself and therefore a form of activism – it is something you practise rather than passively observe or learn about. Mad Studies is relational and collective, not individualistic. I believe this should be reflected in the way that Mad Studies is delivered. Students should be active practitioners rather than passive recipients. I see Mad Studies as fluid and experiential, co-created by people when they come together,  rather than a stagnant knowledge base conveyed through dense written articles and texts.

What drew me to study Mad Studies is that it grew out of radical social movements like the user, survivor, ex-patient, and consumer movements. It is embedded in people’s direct experience of psychiatric harm, systemic injustice, coercion, removal of human rights, and forced treatment. What brought people together to create Mad Studies was an understanding that this adversity can also lead to deep connections between people, experiential wisdom, and the power to collectively bring about social change.

Mad Studies should be about listening to Mad people and looking at experiences from our perspective. So, for me, when delivering something called Mad Studies, we should all come together as fellow learners with a diverse array of experiences and knowledge, whether lived or learned, and create something new together. A Mad Studies course should not be built on individualistic academic success, where one person can thrive and others are left behind because they don’t fit the academic system’s classist, ableist, and sanist ways of measuring knowledge. For Mad Studies to maintain its fidelity, we should all grow, change, and learn because of what is co-created in that magical space between people. It is supposed to be messy; it is supposed to be radical; and it is supposed to be collective.

If staff within an institution are the ones holding and dispersing knowledge, then it presumes learning is one-way. Lecturers also need to learn and grow, and the institution itself can learn from the wisdom that Mad students bring into the faculty. As a result, they should be open to doing things differently.

However, I saw no evidence of this kind of learning or openness to change during my time on the course. When the emphasis is on completing assignments, made up of individual essays, then learning is one-way and transactional. The focus is on the destination and ultimately on the letters at the end of your name, a fancy hat, a robe, and a piece of paper. Instead, what I want to see being valued in Mad Studies is the experiential learning and the collective journey.

The current, limited, individualistic focus keeps us trapped in the thinking that academic success is where the valuable knowledge lies. Activists have been fighting against this for decades. Exhausted by the people with clinical qualifications holding all the power, we have fought for lived experience to be seen as a credible and legitimate knowledge base that should be valued for what it is. Ironically, I recall a quote from David Reville: ’the last thing I want is for mad people’s history to be cloistered in the university… take mad people’s history out into the community’.

As peer support becomes co-opted by the system, the focus is more on achieving Continuing Education Units and following institutional certification processes, rather than on relational practice and experiential wisdom. Increasingly, our ‘recovery stories’ are worth a Level 1 certificate and an extra £1 an hour if we want to claw our way up the institution’s pay scale.

Mad Studies can’t offer a mutual, relational and co-learning approach when it’s delivered by an academic institution which is constrained by individualism, classism, and ableism. After all, the same institutions that want to bring in lived experience workers, survivor researchers, or Mad Studies programmes are still delivering clinical services and courses that see Mad, or psychiatrically-diagnosed people, as damaged, ill, and disordered.

Before bringing Mad experience and wisdom into institutions, we need to seriously consider whether it will be genuinely valued and implemented with fidelity. I often draw on the work and words of mental health activist Darby Penney when reflecting on my own practice. Darby asked us to consider whether individually embedding ourselves within academic and governmental systems causes our voices, as a movement, to be weakened. Does it slow down social change and undermine our historic social movement values?

It was considering my own position in this that led me to withdraw from the course. As a Mad student, I don’t want my success in the programme to be at the cost of excluding others. I don’t want to see just enough change so that institutions include the more palatable Mad people in their existing spaces. I want radical, transformational change so that angry activists, and those who don’t fit into tidy societal boxes, are not repeatedly left behind. To effectively challenge harmful and oppressive institutions we need to be wary of becoming deeply embedded in them ourselves.

I have spent many frustrating years advocating for peer support, despite seeing it increasingly being co-opted by the mental health system. I will continue to advocate for peer support and Mad Studies, but both should be led by Mad people and driven by what we need and want rather than what the institution it sits within needs and wants.

Lisa Archibald is a former Mad Studies student at Queen Margaret University, and currently a Co-Director of Intentional Peer Support.

Update: despite campaigns by Mad Studies students and supporters, Queen Margaret University have decided to discontinue the Mad Studies MSc. The University will honour the degree destinations of current students, but there will be no further intakes for this course. The University has said they will continue to offer Mad Studies in some format – either stand-alone modules or micro-credentials – but not the degree.


This is an article from the Spring 2024 issue of Asylum Magazine.  Subscribe to Asylum Magazine.