By: Erin Rooney
We’re almost a month into the Fall term now and as the days get ever colder and midterms seem to have crept out of nowhere taking us by surprise, it’s not uncommon to hear people around campus moaning about the ‘crazy’ amount of work they have or dramatically claiming it’s going to give them a ‘mental breakdown.’ We’re probably all guilty of making statements like this at one time or another and whilst we might not mean anything by them, our use of language in this way makes light of the manner in which our society relates to issues surrounding mental health. Seemingly throwaway comments like these show how language is a part of our society’s often discriminatory attitude towards mental illness; a part that we’re not necessarily aware of but that can reinforce the stigma attached to mental illness nonetheless.
Alisa, a McMaster student and active member of the Mad Student Society for the past 3 years, described the significance of everyday language to perceptions of mental health. “Negativity is very embedded in our culture in regards to disability. That’s how the media talks about it, using words with frightening, scary or bad connotations. Through this, mental illness is treated differently to other forms of discrimination such as racism and sexism which are less socially acceptable,” she said. As a member of MSS, Alisa is part of a society that tries to explore these labels attached to mental illness and reclaims some of them for self-identification. Members might refer to themselves using a wide variety of names from ex-patients to psychiatric survivors, some calling themselves crazy or along with the society’s name, ‘mad.’ “In our community, people use a whole variety of terms around disability and mental health issues that we may choose to use or reject but by reclaiming words like mad, nuts and crazy we can give them a more positive usage,” explained Alisa. In this way words that were once used to insult can be used to celebrate differences instead of stigmatising them.
Language reclamation is just one side of MSS’s far reaching mandate. Set up in 2005, Mad Student Society offers an alternative support community to the counselling or therapeutic services commonly offered by universities and schools, for students with any experience of the mental health system. Instead MSS is based around the idea of the peer support group. Peer support is different from typical group therapy in that it has no involvement from mental health professionals or organisations. It is purely a space for members to support each other and discuss their experiences away from the medical sphere of things. Elizabeth Carvalho, another active MSS member, said “peer support has much more of an emphasis on equality and united mutual support. It creates a community of people with similar concerns and interests where friendships develop. It’s actually quite a radical idea!” As well as helping students navigate their way through higher education, MSS tries to help students gain self-advocacy and provides them with alternative pathways to access their rights outside of the mainstream medical systems usually favoured by university administrations. With as many as 1 in 5 Canadians experiencing mental health issues throughout their lives, the highest majority of these being teenagers and young adults aged between 15 and 24, it is clear that adequate support and understanding in schools and universities is hugely important. By offering an alternative to the more formalised medical support of universities Mad Students Society has created a community that helps protect the rights of members in higher education, and an environment where positive mutual support is encouraged.
MSS runs monthly formal support meetings in 3 cities with Hamilton’s group getting together on the 4th Thursday of every month at varying locations. As well as this, more informal continual support is available through MSS’s online forum listserv where members can communicate further about their experiences and organise events. For more information about MSS contact Elizabeth or Alisa through the MSS Facebook page at fb.com/MadStudentSociety or see their website at madstudentsociety.com