Building “mad” friendly communities

My previous post on my struggle with mental illness really seems to have struck a nerve with many readers. I recieved a number of emails (anarchiazine [at] gmail [dot] com) from others who struggle (or have struggled) with mental illness, telling me their stories – some from friends, others from people I have never met. Those emails, combined with a line from Maia in a comment – “Do you have any ideas about where we could start to make things better?” – and some discussions with friends has really strengthened by desire to begin imagining the next step.

Before I continue, I’d like to mention that I have issues with using the term “mad”, but I’m yet to discover a better term, so in the interim I will continue to use it.

There seems to be a dearth of information on the internet relating to anarchism (or even other radical politics) and mental illness, and what little there is predominantly focuses on medical analyses of mental illness – looking at alternative methods of treatment, critiquing the medical establishment’s view of mental illness and the like. While this is no doubt important, what seems to be missing is a political analysis of mental illness, a discussion of how we can create “mad” friendly communities and indeed what those communities would even look like.

There is the odd site such as Mad Pride (not updated since 2001) that seemed to have potential to foster that discussion, and I have heard 2nd or 3rd hand stories of collectives/groups working on mental illness issues in various radical communities around the world, but for the most part it seems to be something that I’d need to start from scratch, and thats a thought that really scares me.

I remember having discussions with a couple of other people in the Wellington anarchist community in 2005. We had the idea of having an anarchist mental illness support group in Wellington, where we would get together and share our stories, and support each other in our personal struggles. The group never took shape, for a number of reasons, but thinking back now, I wonder whether we could have created a space/atmosphere where we all felt safe and comfortable opening up to each other. I also recall with sadness the fear I felt at the time about how such a group would be recieved by the community as a whole – a fear which, while it may have been unfounded (who knows?), was certainly very real.

Perhaps here we have much we could potentially learn from survivors of and those working on issues of intimate violence. I’m not wishing to compare the struggles in any way – they are clearly very different – but in terms of creating safe spaces for open and passionate discussion, it seems like it may be a worthwhile place to start.

I think community-based support groups such as this are a good beginning – while everyone’s experiences are undoubtably different, I feel much more comfortable talking about my struggle with others who at least have some real understanding of where I’m coming from. Once these groups are more established, they could also make excellent staging grounds for working with the wider community on “mad” issues – both in terms of education and in terms of proactively creating a framework for a more “mad” friendly community. Because, as much as solidarity from others is important, ultimately, any changes must be driven by those who are currently marginalised, who’s voices are currently unheard.

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7 Responses to Building “mad” friendly communities

  1. Byron says:

    Support groups sound like a good idea. Mental illness is an issue I think about from time to time and there are a couple of things I think the left should do;

    – Call bullshit when politicions start demonising mentally ill people (most commonly those with depression) for recieving the sickness benefit, this is basicly implying that depression is never debilitating (its not always, but it can be) and they should be called on it.

    – Fight for “mad friendly” jobs; I think there are limits to this under capitalism, but at the least fighting for more sick days is stress causing speed up is something that could be done.

  2. Byron says:

    opps, should be “and stress…” not “is”

  3. sparx says: is an egroup that started around the melbourne social forum, 2004 (or 03) there were lots of ideas around being more than a standard support group – doing direct actions, street theater, education, which hasn’t really happened.

    but on the other hand, we do have an egroup and sometimes go to the beach and stuff. think it’s a mostly melbourne list – mostly anarchist or anarchist-like – but anyone can subscribe.

  4. christin says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I felt this posted and reposted excepts in our radical mental health blog.

  5. Hi there,

    You asked, “While this is no doubt important, what seems to be missing is a political analysis of mental illness…”

    If you haven’t heard of him before, you might find valuable the writings of libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz.

    In books like ‘The Myth of Mental Illness’ and ‘The Therapeutic State’ he challenges the state’s role in locking people up for no more reason than having been declared “mentally ill.”

    In Szasz’s view, there are certainly organic conditions that cause brain problems that in many cases can be cured relatively easily with medication — and the illness then is a specific and curable physical illness, not a mental condition which is often only a symptom of the illness itself.

    “True brain diseases,” says Szasz, “are the province of neurologists, not psychiatrists.” Labelling as “mental illness” the symptoms of an organic physical condition is as wrong as calling ‘thinking problems’ or ‘problems with living’ “illnesses,” and declaring that the state can or should somehow cure or treat or lock people up for these afflictions.

    As Szasz points out, such a thing is very, very dangerous indeed.

    The state’s only case for locking people up, says Szasz, should be for some crime they have actually committed, not for being, by the state’s definition, “mentally ill.” I agree with him. And murder is very much something for which they should be locked up.

    You can read a good interview with Szasz in Reason Magazine: ‘Curing the Therapeutic State.’

    Here’s a link:

    Best wishes,


  6. Hi! I just found your blog a week or so ago. You should definitely check out The Icarus Project’s zine called Friends Make the Best Medicine: A Guide to Creating Community Mental Health Support Networks. (You can download it here:
    I’ve read it and found it to be really inspiring and useful.

  7. pcwork says:

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