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Madness and the demand for recognition

A new book by Dr Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, Wellcome ISSF Research Fellow in Philosophy and Psychiatry at Birkbeck, explores the hopes of Mad activists for a new understanding of madness in society.

Activists on the street holding a 'Mad Pride' banner
© Superbass / CC-BY-SA-4.0

From the civil rights movement to Gay Pride, activist groups have a long history of acting as catalysts for changing policy and perceptions in society. The protests of activists have played a direct role in challenging and contradicting government, educators and even medical professionals to overturn public perceptions, and now Dr Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed, Wellcome ISSF Research Fellow in Philosophy and Psychiatry at Birkbeck, is asking whether the same could prove true for emerging groups of Mad activists and reformers.

Mad activists are redefining the terms of the conversation around mental health by repositioning elements of ‘madness’, such as hearing voices or the highs associated with Bipolar Disorder, as valuable experiences that ought to be de-stigmatised and, according to some groups, perhaps even celebrated.

Having trained as a psychiatrist and worked in psychiatric hospitals before becoming a full-time researcher, Dr Rashed is in a unique position to consider this question. Madness and the Demand for Recognitionwhich is due to be published in early February, is the first comprehensive philosophical examination of the claims and demands of Mad activism. Dr Rashed says: “The book stems from my efforts to reconcile what I saw of mental health conditions in my often difficult experience working in mental health units with what Mad activists were saying about the positive potential of madness.”

There may be no definitive conclusion available to draw on this matter, but the book has re-opened the question of how we understand madness in society. As Dr Rashed explains: “We have a default idea of mental health issues as a matter of medical difference, perpetuated by current efforts to de-stigmatise mental health that refer to these conditions as purely biomedical problems to be treated in the same was as physical diseases. However, this perception is not the same in all cultures, and activist groups such as The Icarus Project have started a debate on where mental health conditions sit in our cultural repertoire. Bipolar Disorder, for example, is both destructive and creative – a purely medical view would try to blot out those periods of creativity, but perhaps there is a way to harness the positive while preventing the negative.”

While an increased focus on and awareness of mental health issues is welcomed, Dr Rashed argues that, by assessing mental health conditions from a purely psychiatric or biomedical perspective, we miss some of the nuance that might help us reduce the severe distress often associated with these conditions : “It’s essential to look beyond a medical context and consider the workplace, education and society, as part of a combined effort to shift how society views mental health,” he says.

Madness and the Demand for Recognition questions whether, in a society that appears to view many mental health conditions with tunnel vision, we can make space for different understandings of madness.

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